What our earliest memories mean

Everyone suffers from amnesia … even you. Known as infantile amnesia, this is the phenomenon that prevents us from remembering more than a handful of life events that took place before we turned three or four years old.

Researchers who study memory have found, however, that different cultures and upbringings have a bearing on what we recall from our very early lives.

They have indicated that there are five influences that will determine how much we are able to remember:

  • cognitive and social discontinuity
  • the emergence of the self
  • early parent-child memory sharing
  • functions of autobiographical memory
  • the complexity of life experience.

A report in The Conversation elaborates on why language and the level of detail in conversations we had as children with our parents will determine how much we remember.

The more ‘elaborative’ a parent is when discussing a past event, the more likely the child is to recall details. By way of example, the report uses two different parental talking styles – one is an elaborative mother, and the other is not:

Mother: You and Daddy put the Christmas tree up together, and then you put on decorations! What decorations did you put on?

Child: Um… the Christmas balls!

Mother: That’s right! Daddy bought Christmas balls and stars to hang on the tree. What colours were they?

Child: Red and gold.

Mother: Red and gold. Pretty red balls, and gold stars.

Child: And there was the paper circles too.

In contrast, below is a conversation between a less elaborative mother and her preschool-aged child.

Mother: I’m going to ask you about your preschool Christmas concert. Was that good?

Child: Yeah.

Mother: What happened there?

Child: Dad came.

Mother: Yes, but what happened?

Child: I don’t know.

In countries where children grow up in intergenerational households, they tend to have more memories. It is probably a result of greater opportunities to have conversations with adults, such as their grandparents.

Different cultures can also influence recall. The authors of the article wrote: Consistent with the ‘individualist’ values of Western culture, American college students’ earliest childhood memories are typically long, specific and self-focused. Consistent with the ‘collectivist’ values of Chinese culture, Chinese students’ earliest childhood memories are typically brief, and more likely to reference social responsibilities.”

It has been hypothesised that American mothers are more likely to emphasise their children’s emotions and this could lead to later reminiscing becoming more self-centred.

Studies have also shown that if children are brought up in households where the parents are depressed, they will likely have less detailed memories. This phenomenon is called over-general memory.

New Zealand Maoris have been found to have the earliest memories of any culture, with an ability to recall events from as early as two-and-a-half years of age. This has been attributed to a rich oral tradition where intergenerational stories exchanged between adults and children are a feature of child-rearing.

How far back do you remember? Why do you think you can or can’t remember childhood events?

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Written by Olga Galacho


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