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Have you ever wondered when the earliest memories form in childhood, or why you can't recall so much of your own younger years? Research sheds an interesting new light on memory development.

We have all done and experienced things we would rather forget about if we could, and then there are those things we should really remember but just can't seem to recall — from the benign, like that new neighbor's name, to the potentially life-altering, like what happened that night we got really drunk.

Selective memory affects all age groups, from teens to young adults and middle-aged people to senior citizens, though not always for the same reasons. Neurological condition and substance abuse aren't the same thing, after all.

Of all stages of life, however, childhood is definitely the period during which our memories are naturally most erratic. Why is that? 

A few different theories exist, of course. Freud came up with the term childhood amnesia in 1910, and said it "veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it". Why? We're talking about Freud, so the answer is unsurprisingly "sexual trauma". Until a few decades ago, the more popular theory was that young kids simply don't create memories, either because nothing really exciting happens at that age or because the brain is too immature to do so.

When Do The Earliest Memories Appear?

"When do the earliest memories appear?" might appear to be a sane thing to ask, but it looks like scientists were asking the wrong question. Any parent who currently has young children probably knows that even very young kids (aged roughly between two and five) are definitely able to recall things that happened in the past. Sometimes those things took place only weeks ago, but many kids are definitely able to go back much further.

It is not unusual for young children to talk vividly about stuff that took place six months, a year, or even several years back. Doesn't that demonstrate that memories do form during those ages?

I asked my children, five and eight years old, to talk about some things they remember from "long ago". My son talked about a neighbor at our old house giving him chocolate, and we moved more than two years ago. He also recalled jumping on a bouncy castle in our old neighborhood. My daughter remembered having a bad fall when she was five, but doesn't remember her brother being born when she was two, though she was at the birth. Neither can she recall her great grandmother dying when she was three.

This small selection of things remembered and forgotten is bound to sound familiar to many parents. It is also in line with research recently conducted by Carole Peterson from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Peterson and her colleagues wanted to find out what happens to those early childhood memories, where they go and when we lose them

'Earliest Memories' Replaced Over Time

The team interviewed 140 kids aged between four and 13, asking them to describe their three earliest memories. Parents stood by to confirm that the memories the children relayed were of things that really did happen. All kids, even the four-year olds, were able to describe early memories.

The youngest children could describe events that happened when they were about two years old. Two years later, the research team followed up to see if the subjects had any amnesia. They found that more than a third of the over-10s retained the memories they had initially described, while the very youngest kids had mainly forgotten.

Some of them adamantly denied that the events they had remembered two years earlier ever happened to them! And there you have it: childhood amnesia in action.

As children get older, their "earliest memories" change. Memories that were vivid at first get replaced with newer memories, up until about age 10 when their memories "crystallize", Peterson explains. 

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