Are You Remembering Your Childhood Correctly?
Memory is more fluid and unreliable than you think.
Have you ever wondered why you can’t remember a thing about your childhood, but certain snippets of it stand out clearly? As it turns out, while some aspects of our memory are entirely out of our control, human memory is more contextual and fluid than we might believe. You may remember — or misremember — events based on factors that have little to do with your brain’s capacity to retain information.
How long term memory works in childhood
The human brain’s ability to form long term memories changes with age, but even young children have good memories. In the earliest years, while new neural connections are being formed almost constantly, and babies are using those connections to build the most basic skills, their neural connections are developing rapidly. However, with time, some of the connections that have been made are rendered useless, and the brain begins a process of optimization, which coincides with so-called childhood amnesia — when we start to forget events that happened in early childhood. For most people, this turning point occurs at around age seven.
Berit Brogaard, writing for Psychology Today, writes: “During childhood and adolescence, initially imprecise, unused, or unnecessary neural connections between neurons are gradually pruned away, leaving connections that are stronger, more useful, and more specific. We can think of it as a sort of neuronal natural selection.”
The memories that remain are ones that have particular emotional significance or have been reinforced by others.
Why we remember certain things… and not others
But even so, some people have better memories than others, and even the same person may remember specific pieces of events, sometimes inaccurately. In other words, memory is more subjective and fluid than we think.
Studies that show memory is largely shaped by narratives and how frequently a specific event is reinforced. We tend to remember things better when they are part of a story or sequence; the more often we hear this story or see visual cues of it, the stronger that memory becomes. So hearing a parent retell a version of events, for example, can ensure that a specific event gets ingrained in a child’s memory, and remains vivid.
For this reason, memory is also influenced by culture – one study by researcher Qi Wang showed that Chinese adults had longer periods of childhood amnesia than American adults, because in Chinese culture, remembering and reminiscing about your childhood is not an important aspect of adulthood. Maori New Zealanders, on the other hand, whose culture very strongly focuses on recollections of the past and of childhood, showed much stronger recall of the earliest childhood memories. You not only remember more about your childhood if it’s retold to you, but if it’s part of the cultural context that places enormous value on those memories.
Finally, memory is fluid and unreliable; our memories of facts can, in fact, be influenced by the things we see and hear about those events subsequently. One study has gone so far as to show that we can remember an entirely false set of circumstances about an event based solely on having remembered the various distortions in a series of retellings. Taking photographs of an experience, and revising those images later, can also distort what we remember by dampening the impact of our other sensory experiences of the event. Interestingly, what we hear and see about an event after the fact strongly influences our understanding and belief about what “really” happened.
All of this means that our children will likely remember more about their childhoods than we did, because their every move is being documented with photos and videos. The more they see those images, and hear stories about them, the more they will remember those events. But they will form memories around the version of events they hear, so it’s not only the events that may stay with them, but the interpretation of the storyteller as well.