Think of Your First Memory — Why Can't You Remember Even Earlier?

BrainStuff: Why Can't People Remember Being Born? HowStuffWorks

Odds are, you remember a lot of different things. Your 18th birthday. Walking into high school on the first day. The last time you ate a burrito. But what do you remember about being two years old? Or life as an infant? Or your first birthday?

And why on earth can't you remember being born?


As our host Lauren Vogelbaum explains in the above BrainStuff video, it's a question that has puzzled people for centuries. Sigmund Freud called it infantile amnesia, meaning that we repress our earliest memories because of their inappropriate and traumatic sexual content. Most experts today, however, offer different explanations for our early memory gaps.

One theory is that we form episodic memories in which we can recall the details of a specific event in the past, but these memories have an expiration date. For example, a person at age 60 may recall episodic memories from age 30 with great specificity, but not get all the details right. This person also may recall some things that happened in childhood. Ask about birth to age two or three and there will be few — if any — memories.

Some researchers believe that babies can't form episodic memories until they form other cognitive abilities, like language, first. However, recent experiments have shown that animals like mice experience infantile amnesia, too. The fact that it crosses species means it is probably a function of brain biology, not language.

One thing we do know is that memory and encoding isn't as efficient in babies as it is in older children and adults. This is probably because the prefrontal cortex of a baby's brain hasn't matured yet. Or, it could be because the brain is rapidly forming new cells in the hippocampus of young children and all these new cells are obscuring or erasing the memories you form as an infant.

Another possibility is that babies are actually making lots of early memories, but become unable to access them as they age. Whether these early memories are erased or put behind an inaccessible firewall is still unknown.

What's your earliest memory? And let us know if, say, in 30 years you still remember this video.