The great forgetting

by 3700 3,700 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

The great forgetting

From left to right; Kristin, Dave, Dan, Dot and Sue. All photos kindly supplied by the author

Our first three years are usually a blur and we don’t remember much before age seven. What are we hiding from ourselves?

Kristin Ohlson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and New Scientist, among others. Her latest book is The Soil Will Save Us (2014). She lives in Portland, Oregon.

3700 3,700 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

I’m the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.

My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.

My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.

My strongest recollection is a constant straining to be with my brothers and sisters. I remember having to go to bed when it was still light out, kicking at the sheets as I listened for their voices coming down the hall or through the windows from the back yard. Sometimes I could smell popcorn. The next morning, I’d search the living room rug for their leftovers and roll the unpopped kernels around in my mouth. I do remember that, probably because it was something that played out night after night – our father loved popcorn.

Several years ago, I thought I might have the chance to recover that lost past when we were all tightly clustered together in one house. My brothers had driven to Bucks Lake up in the Sierras of northeastern California where, until I was around three years old, our family had leased a house every summer to escape the Sacramento Valley heat. They found our old cabin unchanged. Even a table built by a local sawmill was still in the living room. They knocked on the door and, weirdly enough, my younger brother knew the current lessee. He invited them in and then invited the rest of us back for a look.

With our father, we set off a few months later, up highways that narrowed into dusty roads through dark pines and past bright stony summits. When we got to the cabin, my siblings scattered to claim their favourite outdoor spots, but I was rooted near the car, struck by how much this place differed from what I thought I remembered.

I recalled that the water was a long walk across a sandy beach from the house; I had an image of my mother standing on that wide beach, her dress whipped by the wind, her hand cupped near her mouth. But the pebbled shoreline was just a few feet away. I recalled the spine of a dam jutting from the water not far from the house, a perilous and sudden cliff at the edge of the lake that my siblings had once ventured too close to. But even though the lake is a man-made one, the dam wasn’t visible from the house. I followed my father inside, where the tininess of the kitchen fascinated him. He kept opening cabinet doors and laughing as they banged each other in the narrow aisle. ‘Mother just hated this kitchen!’ he said. ‘She always made big breakfasts – eggs and sausage and pancakes – and as soon as she finished cleaning up, you kids would come running back in the house wanting lunch.’

Kristin Ohlsen being looked after by elder sister Sue. Kristin Ohlson being looked after by elder sister Sue.

I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember the table. I didn’t remember anything about the place. My siblings tugged me through the house, pointing out where everyone had slept – they said I had been in a little alcove in the hallway, though I recalled staying in my parents’ room and watching them sleep in the early morning light. They pointed out other features tied to the life that we all lived in the cabin, eager for me to remember, but there was nothing. I even dropped to my knees and circled the living room at toddler level, peering at dusty windowsills and sniffing at the knotholes in the pine walls and running my fingers over the floorboards. Nothing.

Daily Weekly

I now know that it would have been unusual for me to remember anything from that time. Hardly any adult does. There is even a term for this – childhood amnesia, coined by Sigmund Freud in 1910 – to describe the lack of recall adults have of their first three or four years and our paucity of solid memories until around the age of seven. There has been some back and forth over a century of research about whether memories of these early years are tucked away in some part of our brains and need only a cue to be recovered. That’s what I was hoping when I revisited our old cabin with my siblings. I intended to jostle out a recalcitrant memory with the sights, sounds, smells and touch of the place. But research suggests that the memories we form in these early years simply disappear.

Freud argued that we repress our earliest memories because of sexual trauma but, until the 1980s, most researchers assumed that we retained no memories of early childhood because we created no memories – that events took place and passed without leaving a lasting imprint on our baby brains. Then in 1987, a study by the Emory University psychologist Robyn Fivush and her colleagues dispelled that misconception for good, showing that children who were just 2.5 years old could describe events from as far as six months into their past.

But what happens to those memories? Most of us assume that we can’t recall them as adults because they’re just too far back in our past to tug into the present, but this is not the case. We lose them when we’re still children.

The psychologist Carole Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland has conducted a series of studies to pinpoint the age at which these memories vanish. First, she and her colleagues assembled a group of children between the ages of four and 13 to describe their three earliest memories. The children’s parents stood by to verify that the memories were, indeed, true, and even the very youngest of the children could recall events from when they were around two years old.

if the memory was a very emotional one, children were three times more likely to retain it two years later

Then the children were interviewed again two years later to see if anything had changed. More than a third of those age 10 and older retained the memories they had offered up for the first study. But the younger children – especially the very youngest who had been four years old in the first study – had gone largely blank. ‘Even when we prompted them about their earlier memories, they said: “No, that never happened to me,”’ Peterson told me. ‘We were watching childhood amnesia in action.’

In both children and adults, memory is bizarrely selective about what adheres and what falls away. In one of her papers, Peterson trots out a story about her own son and a childhood memory gone missing. She had taken him to Greece when he was 20 months old, and, while there, he became very excited about some donkeys. There was family discussion of those donkeys for at least a year. But by the time he went to school, he had completely forgotten about them. He was queried when he was a teenager about his earliest childhood memory and, instead of the remarkable Greek donkeys, he recalled a moment not long after the trip to Greece when a woman gave him lots of cookies while her husband showed the boy’s parents around a house they planned to buy.

Peterson has no idea why he would remember that – it was a completely unremarkable moment and one that the family hadn’t reinforced with domestic chitchat. To try to get a handle on why some memories endure over others, she and her colleagues studied the children’s memories again. They concluded that if the memory was a very emotional one, children were three times more likely to retain it two years later. Dense memories – if they understood the who, what, when, where and why – were five times more likely to be retained than disconnected fragments. Still, oddball and inconsequential memories such as the bounty of cookies will hang on, frustrating the person who wants a more penetrating look at their early past.

To form long-term memories, an array of biological and psychological stars must align, and most children lack the machinery for this alignment. The raw material of memory – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of our life experiences – arrive and register across the cerebral cortex, the seat of cognition. For these to become memory, they must undergo bundling in the hippocampus, a brain structure named for its supposed resemblance to a sea horse, located under the cerebral cortex. The hippocampus not only bundles multiple input from our senses together into a single new memory, it also links these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations to similar ones already stored in the brain. But some parts of the hippocampus aren’t fully developed until we’re adolescents, making it hard for a child’s brain to complete this process.

‘So much has to happen biologically to store a memory,’ the psychologist Patricia Bauer of Emory University told me. There’s ‘a race to get it stabilised and consolidated before you forget it. It’s like making Jell-O: you mix the stuff up, you put it in a mould, and you put it in the refrigerator to set, but your mould has a tiny hole in it. You just hope your Jell-O – your memory – gets set before it leaks out through that tiny hole.’

In addition, young children have a tenuous grip on chronology. They are years from mastering clocks and calendars, and thus have a hard time nailing an event to a specific time and place. They also don’t have the vocabulary to describe an event, and without that vocabulary, they can’t create the kind of causal narrative that Peterson found at the root of a solid memory. And they don’t have a greatly elaborated sense of self, which would encourage them to hoard and reconsider chunks of experience as part of a growing life-narrative.

Frail as they are, children’s memories are then susceptible to a process called shredding. In our early years, we create a storm of new neurons in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus and continue to form them throughout the rest of our lives, although not at nearly the same rate. A recent study by the neuroscientists Paul Frankland and Sheena Josselyn of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto suggests that this process, called neurogenesis, can actually create forgetting by disrupting the circuits for existing memories.

the mother engages the child in a lively conversation about events, always passing the baton of remembering back to the child

Our memories can become distorted by other people’s memories of the same event or by new information, especially when that new information is so similar to information already in storage. For instance, you meet someone and remember their name, but later meet a second person with a similar name, and become confused about the name of the first person. We can also lose our memories when the synapses that connect neurons decay from disuse. ‘If you never use that memory, those synapses can be recruited for something different,’ Bauer told me.

Memories are less vulnerable to shredding and disruptions as the child grows up. Most of the solid memories that we carry into the rest of our lives are formed during what’s called ‘the reminiscence bump’, from ages 15 to 30, when we invest a lot of energy in examining everything to try to figure out who we are. The events, culture and people of that time remain with us and can even overshadow the features of our ageing present, according to Bauer. The movies were the best back then, and so was the music, and the fashion, and the political leaders, and the friendships, and the romances. And so on.

Of course, some people have more memories from early childhood than others do. It appears that remembering is partly influenced by the culture of family engagement. A 2009 study conducted by Peterson together with Qi Wang of Cornell and Yubo Hou of Peking University found that children in China have fewer of these memories than children in Canada. The finding, they suggest, might be explained by culture: Chinese people prize individuality less than North Americans and thus may be less likely to spend as much time drawing attention to the moments of an individual’s life. Canadians, by contrast, reinforce recollection and keep the synapses that underlie early personal memories vibrant. Another study, by the psychologist Federica Artioli and colleagues at the University of Otago in New Zealand in 2012, found that young adults from Italian extended families had earlier and denser memories than those from Italian nuclear families, presumably as a result of more intense family reminiscence.

But it doesn’t necessarily take a crowd of on-site relatives to enhance a child’s recollection. Bauer’s research also points to ‘maternal deflections of conversation’, meaning that the mother (or another adult) engages the child in a lively conversation about events, always passing the baton of remembering back to the child and inviting him or her to contribute to the story. ‘That kind of interaction contributes to the richness of memory over a long period of time,’ Bauer told me. ‘It doesn’t predict whether a given event will be remembered, but it builds a muscle. The child learns how to have memories and understands what part to share. Over the course of these conversations, the child learns how to tell the story.’

Borrowing Bauer’s Jello-O analogy, I’ve always suspected that my mother had a tinier hole in her Jell-O mould than mine, which allowed her to retain information until it was set into memory. She seemed to remember everything from my childhood, from my siblings’ childhoods, and from her own first six years. Intensely, she recalled the fight between her mother and father, when her mother wound up getting knocked out cold and her father forced her to tell visiting neighbours that his wife was sleeping. The day my grandmother packed up my mother and her sister and moved them from Nebraska to Nevada, with their unwanted household goods strewn across their lawn for the townspeople to pick through and haggle over. The day the doctor took out my mother’s appendix on the kitchen table. The day she wet her pants at school and the nuns made her walk home in weather so cold that her underwear froze. I wondered if her memories were so sharp because these were all terrible events, especially compared with my presumably bland early years.

I now suspect that my mother’s ability to tell the story of her early life also came from the constellation of people clustered at the centre of it. Her young mother, bolting from a marriage she was pressured into and retreating to her brother’s crowded house, her two girls held close. And her sister, three years older, always the point and counterpoint, the question and response. My mother and her sister talked their lives over to such an extent that it must have seemed as if things didn’t really happen unless they had confided them to each other. Thus, ‘Don’t tell Aunt Helen!’ was whispered in our house when something went wrong, echoed by ‘Don’t tell Aunt Kathleen!’ in our cousins’ house when something went amiss there.

I might have a very large hole in my Jell-O mould, but I also wonder if our family’s storytelling and memory-setting apparatus had broken down by the time I came along. My brothers and sisters doted on me – I’m told this and I believe it – but it was their job to be out in the world riding horses and playing football and winning spelling bees and getting into various kinds of trouble, not talking to the baby. And sometime between my being born and my siblings leaving, our mother suffered a breakdown that plunged her into 20 years of depression and agoraphobia. She could go to the grocery store only with my father close to her side, steering the cart, list in hand. Even when she went to the beauty salon to have her hair cut and styled and sprayed into submission, my father sat next to her reading his Wall Street Journal as she cured under one of those bullet-head dryers. When we were home, she spent a lot of time in her room. No one really knows when my mother’s sadness and retreat from the world began – and she’s not around to tell us now – but it might have started when I was very young. What I remember is silence.

Our first three to four years are the maddeningly, mysteriously blank opening pages to our story of self. As Freud said, childhood amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. During that time, we transition from what my brother-in-law calls ‘a loaf of bread with a nervous system’ to sentient humans. If we can’t remember much of anything from those years – whether abuse or exuberant cherishing – does it matter what actually happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn’t have the brains and cognitive tools to stash the event in memory, did it still help shape who we are?

I don’t remember, but I can choose to imagine myself on my siblings’ laps as they read me stories or sang me songs

Bauer says yes. Even if we don’t remember early events, they leave an imprint on the way we understand and feel about ourselves, other people, and the greater world, for better or worse. We have elaborate concepts about birds, dogs, lakes and mountains, for example, even if we can’t recall the experiences that created those concepts. ‘You can’t remember going ice-skating with Uncle Henry, but you understand that skating and visiting relatives are fun,’ Bauer explained. ‘You have a feeling for how nice people are, how reliable they are. You might never be able to pinpoint how you learnt that, but it’s just something you know.’

And we are not the sum of our memories, or at least, not entirely. We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future. Especially lucky are those of us with redemptive stories, in which we find good fortune even in past adversity.

So our stories are not bald facts etched on stone tablets. They are narratives that move and morph, and that’s the underpinning to much of talk therapy. And here is one uplifting aspect of ageing: our stories of self get better. ‘For whatever reason, we tend to accentuate the positive things more as we age,’ McAdams told me. ‘We have a greater willingness or motivation to see the world in brighter terms. We develop a positivity bias regarding our memories.’

I can’t make myself remember my early life with my siblings nearby and my mother before her breakdown, even if I revisit the mountain idyll where the summers of that life unfolded. But I can employ the kinder lens of ageing and the research by these memory scientists to limn a story on those blank pages that is not stained with loss.

I am by nature trusting and optimistic, traits that I’ve sometimes worried are signs of intellectual weakness, but I can choose to interpret them as approaches to the world developed by myriad, if unrecalled, experiences with a loving family in those early years. I don’t remember, but I can choose to imagine myself on my siblings’ laps as they read me stories or sang me songs or showed me the waving arms of a crawdad from that mountain lake. I can imagine myself on their shoulders, fingers twined in their curly Ohlson hair.

I can imagine them patiently feeding me the lines to The Night Before Christmas, over and over, hour after hour, day after day, because someone had to have done it – my mother told me that I could recite the whole poem when I was two years old. Not that they remember doing this, because most of them were teenagers by then and off having the kinds of encounters with people and culture that would define their sense of self for years to come. But I’ll imagine and reconstruct it, both for me and for them. Because our pasts had to have had a lot of that kind of sweetness, given our lucky loving bonds today. We’ve just forgotten the details.

Read more essays on childhood & adolescence, family life and memoir


  • Tom Bilson

    I'm intrigued by the 'false' sense of memory that might be planted and reinforced through photographs: my childhood in the late 60s and 70s is marked with a handful of moments captured on film. However they present me with confused memories, even ones in which I can apparently recall what happened before and afterwards. I'm uncertain whether its the photograph that catalyses the 'false' memory (false in the sent at it happened, but I can't remember it), or whether the photograph helps to recover a genuine memory of the event.

    Compare this to image of my own child whose life, even by the age of 3 and a half, is documented with over 3,000 photos which he flicks through on the iPad and, as a consequence, has a genuine sense of events taking place through time.

    • Derek Roche

      Yeah. I find a total disjunct between the stilted, posed, cheesy black-and-white photographic record of my childhood and the dynamic, full-colour memories of adventures in which there were no annoying adults looming up with those accursed boxes.

      • Moneycircus

        I never wanted to look at photographs. I worried that they would replace my memory with something, not false but different. I'm not sure how you keep them alive but many early sounds, smells and pictures were alive, well into my 20s. Then I began to lose the memories anyway.

        • Derek Roche

          Memories are from the inside out whereas photographs are from the outside in. Memories are dynamic, full-body sensations whereas photographs are static and visual only. Who would want to replace the one with the other? I don't know how you keep them alive either but after reading Bruce's story, I'm sure I too can remember being bathed in the kitchen sink, sunlight through the window, warm water, mother's cooing voice, rainbows in the soap bubbles . . . no photo.

          • babby660

            Ah, but photographs can enhance the memories you DO have.

            For instance pictures dating from my under-five years evoke a very early memory of my younger brother getting lost when we were playing with neighborhood friends in the Bronx, NY in the early 1940s.

            He wandered off while some children were painting my cheeks with some tarry substance in the street. When I realized I couldn't find him, I ran to our apartment to get our mom.

            She & I headed in the direction of the park where she regularly walked us. We asked a lady sitting on a stoop in front of her house if she'd seen the little boy. She recognized us & said we were on the right track.

            We found him a short time later none the worse for the adventure.

  • fsk141

    Thank you, I quite enjoyed this piece.

  • Bruce in North Dakota

    In my late twenties, I was once compelled to ask my mother about a recurring recollection I had of my childhood that involved warm water, feeling loved, seeing her face, and a persistent memory of some kind of red stripe.

    I could not make heads nor tails of the memory, but it is indelibly etched into my neural circuits, no doubt. (When I think of my childhood, it is a memory that always appears, even to this day)

    She just looked at me rather stunned, and then went to the basement and retrieved an oldwhite enameled wash-bowl, with a red pin-stripe around the edge.

    Apparently, she would bath me in this bowl as a baby, and according to her I simply loved the experience. She abandoned the practice pretty early on, as having a birth weight of 11 lbs 12 oz I grew out of "bowl baths" quickly.

    I must assume that this was the basis for the memory, there seems no other valid or likely reason. It is not a "reconstruction" of events, as you mention, but more a glimpse and glimmer of a true imbedded memory. I firmly believe that we can and do possess such early memories, and they are not necessarily clouded (or "shredded") by the passage of time.

    (I gottsta admit, however, that I am wary of people who claim to remember the taste of their momma's milk when undergoing hypnotic regression: hey, Freud might have been right to some extent)

    Your article was most enjoyable, thank you.

    It brought back a pleasant memory

    • matt61350137

      Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I've started averaging 15k a month... The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start... This is where to,.,..

  • sprockethawk

    Well, this is an excellent article and has resonance for me at the moment for a couple of reasons:
    1. Your Jell-O reference. My mother has said repeatedly that my first spoken words came after sitting before a TV when I was 3 and miming the lyrics of a Jell-O ad on the tube. Naturally, I cannot remember this. (Thank God.)
    2. I am currently editing my brother's memoirs, which has two distinct segments--one, where he provides an overview of his early childhood,much of it involving me; and two, a period of his adult years, which is the specific realm of his memoirs. While his adult memories are straightforward and reliable-seeming, his early memories are terribly flawed and, indeed, largely reliant, as written,on 3rd person accounts of events. If some of these early "memories" of his hadn't involved me, I might have accepted at face value the accuracy of his account (as my brother is a straight-shootin' kind of guy), but, being three years older than my brother, I have far greater clarity of those same happenings than he does, and reading his account is almost like witnessing the promulgation of mythology. It's rather sobering, actually, and my sense of what's real has taken quite a hit. I mean, what if I'm full of shit, too? Now what?

  • JenJen10

    I grew up with my grandmother living with us, and I distinctly remember her saying with pride that her 1st memory was of when she was 2 yrs old. I don't remember what she said it was, but she told me many other memories of her youth. I've since told a few other relatives of some of what she said, they had not heard any of them. I feel blessed that I got the chance to be with her in her elderly years when she had started going back to her childhood in her mind & looking over her life, trying to figure out what it meant. I wonder if Alzheimer's makes us remember what we had forgotten.

    I also had the chance to compare these early memories of her childhood with letters written during her early years of marriage only a few yrs ago. A cousin had bought a great-aunt's house, he found a packet of my grandmother's letters to her sister that she'd saved in the corner of her attic. He gave them to me & I spent a day going over them & organizing them by date & transcribing them. She wrote about the family, the same people she had talked about to me when I was a child. Some of the things she said about individuals was a little different from what she'd told me. I wish I'd had the letters then to ask her about what she was doing when she wrote them, I'm sure they would've triggered some more memories to share. She wanted to talk about her life at that point in time.

    My mother is 88 now and has Alzheimer's, she recently started talking about a dead brother Tom like he was alive. Tom left home in 1939 & joined the Navy, he was killed in 1942 in a Pacific battle. I never met him. My mother used to tell me how he was a big boy, had a lot of physical strength & was tall & strong, she said her father depended on Tom to do physical work around the farm, work he couldn't do because her father was weak & had lung problems that developed into emphysema. When she started talking about Tom, I was surprised, she was acting like he was alive, she told me over & over that Tom needs a place to stay & I should let him move in with me. She had never told me that Tom moved out of their home before he left for the Navy, but I later learned from a cousin that Tom had been running with a group of boys in town who were drinking & evidently he was having alcohol problems at this point in his life. I mentioned this to my mother, she said she'd never heard about Tom drinking & she didn't believe it.

    I've learned my mother has selective memory. She usually only talks about the good things. To hear her talk about family, it's like they didn't have any personal issues. To her Tom was the strong older brother who took care of the younger kids on the schoolbus & kept the bullies off them, the brother who did farm work for her father, who had trouble in school & ended up dropping out because his father kept him out of school too much to work on the farm, and who talked constantly about wanting to go to the Navy. But my cousin gave me a different picture of Tom, who was about his age, he said Tom was a happy guy who was fun to be around & was drinking too much just before he enlisted. Since my grandmother's household was a teetotaler household, there was never drinking in her home, and my cousin lived in town & grandmother lived out in the country, so this was a revelation to me. I told him I didn't think mama knew about Tom's drinking, he said she wouldn't believe if if I told her, and he was right, she didn't.

    I wonder how much of our memory is real, and how much is selective. And if we ever really lose any memory. Sometimes a memory pops in my head that I'd forgotten, usually in relation to something someone says or does. I remember skipping down a sidewalk & running up a set of cement stairs & missing the top step & stubbing my big toe on the step, it was bleeding & an older girl I was with took me by the hand back home & helped hold me down while mama poured something antiseptic over it. When I described that sidewalk to mama years later, she said it was an apartment complex we lived in when I was about 2-3 yrs old. There was no photograph to jog that memory, it just popped into my head one day. I have photos of earlier times, especially the summer of 1957 when I was a year & a half old, we went to Florida that winter to visit my mother's sister, and she had a camera with color film, a novelty to us. Mama rarely ever bought color film, but she bought black & white film all the time. Looking back at those color photos my aunt sent us, I can remember bits & pieces of being there, things that weren't in the photos, like when my uncle put me up in his truck & sat on the big seat beside me & something he said scared me, I don't remember what he said, I just remember being scared; in the photos he's smiling & I remember he had a puppet show he rented to children's parties, but I don't remember him fondly, I remember him being curt & raising his voice to my aunt in the house. So I know I do remember that time, snatches of it. I remember the ocean water, my aunt took us to a shallow cove lined with palm trees, and they wanted me to play in the water, but I was scared of that water, there was so much of it. They couldn't get me to go in at first. We went back again before we went home, and the last time I remember being in the water & not being scared & playing in it, and I remember that my mother had bought me a new bathing suit because I hated the old one so much. In one of the photographs, my mother was in the water with me, wading, I don't remember her coming in the water, I do remember her finding a coconut. And she found a big seashell on the beach & we brought it home with us & that night it walked off the kitchen table, everyone was talking about it the next day. And I remember the hula-hoop, my aunt bought me a hula-hoop, I'd never seen one before. They went out of fashion right after that, it was about 15 yrs later that they came back into fashion & I remembered that hula-hoop & I got my mother to buy me another.

    I wonder now how many of those memories of Florida would be coming to the surface if we didn't have those photos to jog my memory.

  • ApathyNihilism

    I wish Aeon articles would leave out the autobiographical details. I usually skip the entire first section of the articles, since it is typically comprised of an autobiographical anecdote which cannot be generalized, and it often comes across as embarrassing self-confession, or confession of the intimate details of others, including family members; was their permission at least sought before the intimate revelations were published?

    Perhaps I expect too much of a scientific approach from this journal, but it does call itself "Aeon", so should aim for the more timeless over the incidental.

  • ApathyNihilism

    "one uplifting aspect of ageing: our stories of self get better"

    This is not very uplifting, as the "positivity bias" of aging is described as form of self-deception. Thus reality is actually worse than one remembers it.

  • Anne Sewell

    Fascinating! I have to admit my earliest memory was when I was around 4 and had an accident in a swimming pool... My parents were pushing me backwards and forwards on a blow-up tube when I fell into the water, face first. I still won't dive into the water today.
    BTW, I'm from about the same era, despite my youthful profile pic. LOL

  • Shirley Hershey Showalter

    I enjoyed this article immensely. Having just published a childhood memoir, all of these issues are quite lively in my brain: my first memory at age three. How much can I actually recall? How much was "jelled" by my mother and grandparents as they told me the story of how I walked down the open staircase to greet my new baby brother?

    Photos. They made it possible to recall much more than I thought I knew on the surface.

    The positive bias of age. I am 66 years old. I wrote about my first 18 years but through the lens of many other experiences. Readers often comment positively on the "tone" of the story, a tone of forgiveness and joy (based on connection of the individual story to the human story) that may not have been possible at earlier stages of my life.

    Love this sentence: "Especially lucky are those of us with redemptive stories, in which we find good fortune even in past adversity."

    Will share with my memoirist friends and readers. Thank you!

  • Eric Greene

    A fascinating topic and thoughtful essay. It is tempting to interpret a baby's perception of what is and isn't 'memorable' from an adult perspective, such as the rare occurrence of seeing a group of donkeys as compared to being given a bunch of cookies. Yet an infant may have a more powerful experience with the cookies - which bonds one to the person giving them, received as a sign of love and acceptance; cookies that are ingested and which are delicious - we hear the crunch along with laughter and feel the gentle touches. All this is enhanced when one's parents are talking about a new home where there will be indescribable happiness. Pretty wonderful indeed.

    I've also wondered as to why we forget memories from the first couple of years. Some of my friends could recall such times, and I was envious. I wonder, however, if the memory of breastfeeding would be best forgotten; I expect so.

    So much here has given me much to reflect upon as I develop Family Spirals, a think tank on family dynamics. How does memory create these dynamics, and how can we find redemption in memory? Thank you!

  • Jack o’donnell

    I'm one of those to whom life as a knee-high creeper and weeper is a
    blank. But I've a friend who claims to remember the moment she first
    stood up and walked. I guess she's at one end of the normative scale- an
    outlier- and I'm normal. I've always wanted to be normal. Thanks, now
    I'm old enough to be optimistic as well.

  • Rachel de Brouwer

    Wow, I really really loved this piece.

    I recently rewatched the movie Mulan, and I realised how much it must have formed my current way of looking at myself and approaching my reality. When I was a kid, I would get my mom to rent that movie endlessly from the library, and I watched it over, and over, and over again. I am sure I embedded "lessons" of that into my psyche without even realising that I was doing so.

    I have often thought that I don't really remember my childhood memories, I just know the stories that I've been told about my childhood by my parents and older brother.

    I am currently doing research into why I do the things I do - kind of using myself as a case study to determine how I make decisions, how I have reached my current point in life etc. This article will come in handy once I get around to actually writing. Thanks!

  • Glam GP

    I would agree that we don't remember much before age 3 although I do have several very vivid memories of big deal events like a large birthday party and the time a bat got into my room. However, I have a great many memories from between ages 3 and 7, and get a little tired of other people telling me that because they themselves can't remember anything from that age, I must have a great imagination or be making it all up. I probably have more memories from my kindergarten year (aged 5) than I do of any of the rest of my primary grade years including after age 7.

  • Woolwit

    In a book that describes her LSD assisted psychotherapy, Constance Newland (a pen name for Thelma Moss), describes recollecting disturbing childhood experiences that, because she had not yet formed the concepts and vocabulary to understand them, get mislabeled and stored as such. She recollects the sound of her parents lovemaking for instance, as 'Daddy hurting Mommy'. That she was able to access these early memories under LSD therapy made me wonder if there might not someday be drugs or devices to help uncover those early memories. But the article seems to suggest that they are most likely simply gone.

  • JJFrank

    During psychotherapy, I was put under hypnosis to discover the source of my fear of abandonment. I had a very intense visual and visceral experience of being about a year old in a crib. I could distinctly feel everything the baby saw and felt as well as simultaneously myself as an adult in the therapy room. I later verified the memory with my mother. It was real and the memory was completely intact and amazingly detailed. I am sure that there are more in there and access is possible.

  • Suzanne Melton

    I'm a little late to the party; this article came in December with the best essays of 2014.
    When I was 15 or 16, drying dishes while Mom washed, I mentioned a couple fleeting images I'd had over and over that I thought might be from my childhood.
    Me: In the first image, I'm sitting on a dark red carpet with a pattern and there were two stairs up to a door. In the second image, I'm sitting at a table; there's a plate of "white stuff" but there's something black in it and I'm scared.
    Mom: How could you remember that?! You were eighteen months old! The carpet and steps were in the living room of your aunt and uncle's house in Spokane.
    The table memory was at breakfast. I was in a high chair and the plate had scrambled eggs. There was a tiny piece of bacon stuck in the eggs and I didn't want to eat. My uncle was a no-nonsense guy who made me eat the eggs. I THREW UP!
    To this day, I cannot eat anything with any kind of char on it and don't be trying to tell me that it's just caramelized and part of the flavor. No "dragon's breath" please!

  • Sigi Forester

    a few years ago, I returned from a trip to the country where I was born. It happened to be spring and I encountered a flowering bush whose scent was immensely familiar, and yet I did not recognize the flowers at all. I took several pictures of it and thought no more about it. when I returned to Canada, I sat with my parents and shared the photos with them. When we came to the pictures of the flowers, I told my mother why I had taken the photos. She was not at all astounded that I would remember the smell. When I was a baby, she parked my carriage under a bush just like that for my naps.