Most of us don’t remember infant or toddlerhood. My sister swears she can remember being two years-old. I can’t remember anything before three-and-a-half. It was when they took her home from the hospital. I remember I was so excited, not because of my new baby sister, but because I was getting Spiderman comic books, for being so good during the ordeal. But why do we all have this hole in our memory? Why can’t we remember being a baby?
Sigmund Freud was the first to address this phenomenon, what he called infant amnesia or childhood amnesia. He thought it had to do with being bombarded by abundance of psychosexual phenomenon which, were you to process it, might make your head explode. This theory is no longer considered valid. Since then, neuroscientists, psychologists, and linguists have each approached the question in different ways.
Certain breakthroughs in the study of memory are now offering insights. Neuroscientists today believe, it’s because areas of the brain where long-term memory is stored aren’t fully developed yet. Two areas are responsible for memory formation—the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe. Besides long-term and short-term memory, there are two other aspects, semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is remembering necessary skills or where objects in the environment can be found, both of which help us navigate the world.
Model of memory formation for spoken words. By Matthew H. Davis and M. Gareth Gaskell [CC BY 3.0], Wikimedia Commons.
The parts of the brain necessary for semantic memory are fully matured by age one. Yet, the hippocampus isn’t quite able to integrate the disparate networks it manages at that age, quite yet. This isn’t achievable until somewhere between the ages of two and four.
Episodic memory strings individual plot points together, to form the kind of linear structure we’re used to. Curiously, the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for episodic memory, isn’t fully developed until we’re in our twenties. Memories from the 20s and beyond, may have more added texture and depth and include important details, such as the date and time in which an incident occurred. Interestingly, in the 1980s, researchers discovered that people remember what happened…
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