I have no memories of my father at Christmas. Any Christmas. He died in spring, he died when I was three, when memory is just beginning to be a part of the human brain.
We might think we remember our birth, seeing our mother’s face for the first time and then living our lives: diaper changes, crying for a bottle, being held. But the brain can’t separate out those particular memories. Living is a blur and comfort is the goal. If we feel pain, hunger, cold, discomfort, or if we are startled by loud noise or voices that changes the quiet we’ve been experiencing, then we cry. It’s how as infants we express ourselves: please keep me comfortable, okay, but none of this other stuff.
LIFE IS BASALLY A VERY LONG DAY AND NIGHT. WE HAVE NO CONCEPT OF TIME.
If you have early childhood memories, it’s probably because stories related to you by your parents helped form such memories. Hopefully your memories and thus your stories are pleasant and positive. What is truly interesting is why you have these memories at all.
OBJECT PERMANENCE, FORMING MEMORIES WITH A DEVELOPING BRAIN
Researchers, using the theory of object permanence, first stated that babies couldn’t form memories. When an object was covered—it was out of sight and out of mind.
But Nicholas Day recounts in an article for Slate some 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 why do our memories form after 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.”
Using metaphors, 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 for that, but most interesting is that the lack of language to facilitate and 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 that 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. (Another reason why many children thrive early on when surrounded by caring parents who talk to them and invite them into the conversation.)
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.
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 that helped create a memory.
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.
Though this holiday season might not be ideal, because you are separated from people that you love because of distance and/or Covid19. Our modern lives allow us to communicate with one another and YES, create memories. Though using the internet is not ideal, you can’t hug your grandchildren and children–you can talk to them, profess your love for them. You can toast your friends and grown children. So…
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. Fill it with love and understanding, not complaints and anger. After all, day to day you are creating a family story. Make it a good one. And wishing you health and peace.