I’m sitting at a picnic table in our screened-in porch. It’s my third birthday party, and I’m opening presents. I unwrap a Tonka truck, and drop to the floor to start playing with it.
That’s been my earliest memory ever since I can, well, remember. But as the years wore on, something weird started happening. I started to feel less attached to the person in that memory. Now, I feel like I’m seeing the memory through someone else’s eyes, watching myself push that truck on the green astroturf carpet. I’m not even sure it’s a real memory anymore.
This has been on my mind because my own son recently had his third birthday. It got me wondering what his first memory will be, and more broadly, what is the nature of early memories? How reliable might they be, and how important to the construction of our identities?
On the latest installment of Clever Apes, we dig into what science has to say about early memory. Young kids actually have lots of memories that don’t make it into long-term storage. The phenomenon, called “childhood amnesia,” is not very well understood. But it seems to have something to do with the lens through which we see the world, and how it changes from early childhood (say, age three) to the more verbal period starting around age five or six. It’s tough to bridge that divide, and that may explain why I’m having a hard time connecting with my three-year old self.
And there’s another reason: memories are made from networks of neurons in our brains. That wiring gets used for lots of things, and so with each new memory, the networks change a little. When we remember something, we effectively rewrite it. That means that in some sense, each time we reflect on a memory, we’re putting a little more distance between ourselves and the actual event. Recent research suggests we’re even doing this in our sleep.
It’s enough to give a fellow a dose of existential distress. But there’s an upside too: A Chicago researcher has demonstrated ways that parents can reinforce and help solidify a child’s memories. If you listen to the show, you can hear me trying this out on my son, Ezra. I bribed him with M&Ms to get him to sit still.