If you have early childhood memories, it’s probably because stories related to you by your parents helped form these memories. Hopefully your memories and thus your stories are pleasant and positive.
What is truly interesting is why you have these memories at all.
Researchers first stated, using the theory of object permanence, that babies couldn’t form memories. When an object was covered—it was out of sight and out of mind.
Forming Memories with a Developing Brain
But Nicholas Day recounts in an article for Slate new findings by Patricia Bauer, professor of psychology at Emory University. She says very young children are able to form memories, like adults, but they have to do so utilizing a hippocampus and prefrontal cortex that is still developing. They capture only part of the present as it flows by and such memories will not move with them into adulthood.
Memories Stick for a Social Reason
So what causes memories to begin to stick forever around the age of three? Bauer states: “Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.” She states that adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the memories, but babies have a big-holed colander: the memories slip through while the baby’s developing brain is trying to organize and stabilize them. Children just under two are able to retain more—even though memories of their second birthday party won’t last into adulthood. Bauer sites that the immature brain is definitely one reason, but most interesting is the lack of language to represent those experiences.
So why do memories begin to stick around 3½ years of age? It’s a social reason rather than a neural one. Research now states memory forming is clearly related to the free flowing “story” that a parent creates while raising a child. Even if a child can’t keep up a conversation, “highly elaborative” mothers and fathers help a child create memories by using parenting narratives.
It’s In The Story
Psychologists studying the interchanges between parents and children note that parents often ask a child repetitive questions about a past event—or they recount the event in detail asking the child questions and incorporating the child’s answers into the telling of the event—or story.
Day writes: When children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections…The word story is important here. Children are learning how to organize memories in a narrative…” And Robyn Fivush, another psychology professor at Emory, states that more organized memories are better retained.
Memory in Story
My father died of a heart attack when I was 3 years and 3 months old. I don’t have any memories of him. I believe I have a memory of the night he died—lots of people in my quiet house. But maybe that memory is part of the story my mother told me over the years. And maybe I don’t remember my father because of the pain of losing him. But I have lots of memories of how I coped with his loss by singing and swinging on a swing in our backyard.
One person commenting on Nicholas Day’s article states he can remember being in the womb. I truly find that hard to believe, yet maybe his mother created a story about that experience or asked him questions and helped create a memory.
Writing, narrative relies heavily on memory and every story we read or write can be tested against the exact truth or possibly our faulty memory of it. Like the following from a piece I wrote:
In a corner of the living room by the bookshelves a dingy red fabric chair sits in a stream of sunlight. I gently touch it. When I was a child, my brothers and I would climb on the wide arm and jump off, landing on the rug, hugging our bodies, knees to chest, and then roll down the living room floor. My father died in that chair in June of 1950.
A Poet’s Thoughts on Memory
Poet David Whyte says that we can live the past, present and future all at once. He says we have no choice in the matter! If you’ve got a wonderful memory of your childhood, it should live within you. If you’ve got a challenging relationship with a parent, that should be there as part of your identity now, both in your strengths and weaknesses. The way we anticipate the future forms our identity now…We are never one thing; we are a conversation—everything we have been, everything we are now and every possibility we could be in the future.
Talk to your young grandchildren; help them form positive narratives about their lives and thus positive memories. Share your own amazing memories with your children and grandchildren. Note that your relationship with your children and grandchildren becomes part of their story and memory. Make it the best, giving and positive, as their childhood memories are part of your parental stories.
For more details read I REMEMBER MAMA AND DADA by Nicholas Day in Slate