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Language and Sense of Self in Memory-Making

Our earliest memories may remain blocked from our consciousness because we had no language skills at that time. A 2004 study traced the verbal development in 27- and 39-month old boys and girls as a measure of how well they could recall a past event. The researchers found that if the children didn't know the words to describe the event when it happened, they couldn't describe it later after learning the appropriate words [source: Simcock and Hayne].

Verbalizing our personal memories of events contributes to our autobiographical memories. These types of memories help to define our sense of self and relationship to people around us. Closely linked to this is the ability to recognize yourself. Some researchers have proposed that children do not develop self-recognition skills and a personal identity until 16 or 24 months [source: Fivush and Nelson].

In addition, we develop knowledge of our personal past when we begin to organize memories into a context. Many preschool-age children can explain the different parts of an event in sequential order, such as what happened when they went to a circus. But it isn't until their fifth year that they can understand the ideas of time and the past and are able to place that trip to the circus on a mental time line [source: Fivush and Nelson].

Parents play a pivotal role in developing children's autobiographical memory as well. Research has shown that the way parents verbally recall memories with their small children correlates to those children's narrative style for retelling memories later in life. In other words, children whose parents tell them about past events, such as birthday parties or trips to the zoo, in detail will be more likely to vividly describe their own memories [source: Urshwa]. Interestingly, autobiographical memory also has a cultural component, with Westerners' personal memories focusing more on themselves and Easterners remembering themselves more in group contexts [source: Urshwa].

More detailed explanations exist regarding childhood amnesia. But brain structure, language and sense of self are its foundation. To learn more about amnesia and memory, don't forget to read the links on the next page.