It is natural not to remember childhood memories. However, certain factors can affect how much of their childhood a person remembers.
People usually cannot remember events that occurred before they reached a certain age. Doctors may refer to this lack of memory as childhood or infantile amnesia.
Experts are not certain about the exact cause of childhood amnesia. Researchers believe people may not remember memories from childhood for several reasons.
This article describes childhood amnesia and its potential causes. It also shares tips for recovering memories.
Trigger warning: This feature mentions experiences of trauma and sexual abuse. Please read at your own discretion.
Childhood amnesia is when a person cannot remember episodic memories from when they were
- hippocampal memories
- autobiographical memories
- hippocampus-dependent memories
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays significant roles in learning and memory.
Age and childhood amnesia
Some research suggests that childhood amnesia stops at different ages for different people.
A 2022 article notes earlier studies that found childhood amnesia affected memories of events that took place before people were 2 years old, while others could only remember events from after they were 4.5 years old. People may also have fewer memories of events that occurred before they were 10 years old.
Other research suggests childhood amnesia affects different memories as a person gets older. A 2016 article describes investigations into how childhood amnesia may change over time.
Experts studied one group of children for a period of 8 years. They dated the children’s earliest memories at three time points during this time and found that people’s earliest memories may have happened earlier than they believe.
Possible effects of events a person cannot remember
Early life events may influence a person’s adult behavior, even if childhood amnesia stops them from recalling them.
Traumatic experiences that a person has early in life and cannot remember may still lead them to experience:
Several factors may cause a person to experience childhood memory loss.
These included psychological events, such as:
Biological factors, such as inherited genetic conditions that affect a person’s development, also have an effect.
Research from 2022 investigated childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and autobiographical memory loss.
The researchers anonymously surveyed 297 adult survivors of CSA online and analyzed this data. Results suggested that, for these adult survivors, the extent of their childhood memory loss was directly connected to:
- a sense of betrayal
- how long the CSA lasted
- dissociation, where a person feels disconnected from themselves and the world around then
- dissociative amnesia, where a person blocks out certain memories
The age when CSA started also indirectly affected childhood memory loss through dissociative amnesia.
Learn more about recognizing child abuse.
Repressed memory theory
Repressed memory theory (RMT) is a concept that suggests psychological trauma can block a person’s episodic memories.
According to proponents of RMT, people automatically and unconsciously block memories of traumatic experiences over time. This theory also suggests repressed trauma can cause people to have physical and mental symptoms.
However, many experts question if RMT is a valid theory. Some believe that RMT is flawed and not scientifically accurate. Scientists are continuing research into the concept, but it remains controversial.
Lack of emotional significance
According to some experts, people’s earliest memories
People may also not remember emotionally significant events from early life because young children might not pay attention to events that appear important to adults. These memories may also be incomplete or broken up.
As a result, children may not form long lasting memories of emotional or traumatic events. Instead, they may have fragments of memories or sensory experiences without context, such as only remembering certain toys or music.
Autobiographical memories may fade because children have not yet fully developed their cognitive abilities, such as language or a sense of self, which is how a person views and perceives themselves.
Children may not be able to express, organize, or store autobiographical memories until they develop these skills. However, forgetting early memories appears to happen in animals without these skills.
Some experts believe that immature human brains cannot process and store autobiographical memories. Proponents of this idea suggest a person’s brain does not remember memories until the hippocampus develops.
Age or certain conditions
However, evidence suggests the memories a person with Alzheimer’s loses are more likely to be from later in life.
People often find it easier to remember memories that are meaningful or special to them.
This can include highly emotional memories, such as their wedding day or other special days, and other memories that have personal importance.
A person may be able to “reactivate” old memories by trying to remember sensory information or perceptions they may have had at the time, such as:
- sensations of touch
Talking about the past
Talking about the past with friends or family may help a person remember shared events or experiences. Discussing the past while engaging and focusing on the perceptions that may have accompanied each memory can help with recall.
Looking at photos
People may be able to aid memory recall by:
- looking at old photographs of their:
- reading old documents, such as:
- newspaper articles
- watching old movies or TV shows
Revisiting familiar places
Visiting locations where a person spent time or where a specific memory occurred may help them recall events that took place there.
The hippocampus area in a person’s brain plays an important part in memory and learning. Learning new skills may not help a person recall earlier memories. However, learning skills at earlier ages
Some forms of therapy aim to evoke memories. For example, reminiscence therapy (RT)
The following section answers common questions people ask about childhood memories.
How much of childhood should a person remember?
People often cannot remember events from before they were 3 years old, and may also not remember many events that occurred before they were 7 years old.
Scientists reviewed older research on childhood amnesia in 2017. They found that the average age of earliest memories for people in Western Europe and North America was 3.5 years old.
Is it normal to not remember the past?
It is natural to have childhood amnesia. Most people cannot remember events from their past that occurred before they reached a certain age.
Childhood amnesia is natural for most people. Many individuals cannot remember any events that took place before they were 2–3 years old.
Some childhood experiences may make it more likely for people to forget early memories. People may also only remember specific fragments of their early experiences.
Speaking with family and friends, visiting familiar places, looking at photographs, and therapy may all help an individual with memory recall.