Long, lazy summer days, shenanigans with friends, squabbles with siblings, and freshly baked cookies after school are just a few of the memories that might linger from your childhood.
Some people have plenty of memories from various stages of early life, but others remember very little of their formative years by the time they reach adulthood. Try as you might to search your brain, you might come up with nothing more than some fuzzy images that drift away when you try to examine them more closely.
If you’re used to hearing friends and loved ones talk about childhood, you might wonder why you have blank space instead of nostalgic recollections. You’re pretty sure you didn’t experience anything traumatic, so what gives? Why can’t you remember? Did you live through something deeply distressing, after all?
Not necessarily. Childhood or infantile amnesia, the loss of memories from the first several years of life, is normal, so if you don’t remember much from early childhood, you’re most likely in the majority.
Perhaps you’ve heard the theory that people often cope with painful memories by forgetting the event. If you don’t have many childhood memories, it can be hard to shake the idea that might be something traumatic lurking below the surface.
While this is possible, it probably isn’t the case. A quick overview of the repressed memory theory can help explain why.
Repressed memory theory
Sigmund Freud was the first to connect childhood trauma with memory loss, or repressed memories, to be precise. This idea really began to gather steam in the 1990s when a number of therapists
Some therapists worked to help clients regain so-called repressed memories through the unethical process of suggestion. Many of these recovered “memories” later proved to be false.
Experts haven’t conclusively ruled out the idea that people can forget traumatic events and recall them later, but more research is needed.
Survivors might have disjointed memories or gaps in memory around the time of the abuse. You might struggle to place specific life events on a timeline or doubt what you remember — but you probably remember bits and pieces, at the very least.
Trauma and memory
While it’s unlikely that you’d completely forget everything about a traumatic event,
Some children respond to trauma by dissociating, or mentally detaching, which could affect how they remember what happened.
Others simply refuse to think about the trauma and wall off the event, but this isn’t quite the same as actually forgetting.
Either way, trauma usually doesn’t completely disappear from memory. Survivors tend to remember traumatic events at least partially, though they may not fully understand what happened.
You’re also more likely to remember events you experienced more than once, say
It’s not at all unusual to remember very little from the first several years of life. Childhood amnesia is part of the normal course of development. Experts aren’t entirely certain what causes it, but memory researchers have come up with a few different theories.
Early childhood memories lack emotional significance
It is believed memories become stronger when they have an emotional component.
You might realize this yourself when considering some of your clearest memories. They likely relate to events that held meaning for you or experiences that generated intense feelings, such as embarrassment, love, happiness, or grief.
Young children don’t have a fully developed range of emotions. As a result, childhood experiences may not register with the same emotional significance as those you’d have during adolescence or adulthood. Since these memories carry less weight, they fade more easily as you age.
Though you might find it strange you can’t remember certain key events parents or older siblings have told you about, your lack of memories may only seem significant because others have suggested you should remember.
Maybe you terrified your family by locking yourself in the house alone as a 4-year-old — but they remember what happened clearly since they were old enough to attach emotional significance to the memory. You may have simply been confused (or amused) by all the fuss.
Normal cognitive development affects memory storage and retrieval
Another aspect of this cognitive growth? The production of new neurons in the hippocampus. As these neurons are introduced, your brain incorporates them into existing pathways. This is great for developmental progress, but not so great for the memories you’ve already formed.
These neurons may potentially block off early memories or disrupt memory pathways in other ways, though experts aren’t yet certain exactly how this happens.
Neuroplasticity research also makes it clear that brain development doesn’t stop once you hit adulthood, as experts previously believed. Rather, your brain can “restructure” itself when it sees the need to adapt to various changes you experience throughout life.
In order to do this, however, it needs to trim away older neural connections you no longer need or use. This process, known as synaptic pruning, helps your brain work more efficiently. It also enables you to make new connections and store new information and memories that are more relevant to your present life and developmental stage.
Memories often aren’t permanent
It’s worth noting that many memories fade over time, even throughout adulthood. You’ll certainly have a stronger capacity for memory as an adult, but you still won’t remember everything.
Memories of early childhood generally begin fading as you approach the teenage years — about the time when you begin to develop your sense of self.
The memories you create as a teenager become a core component of your identity, taking precedence over the memories created when identity was less developed. That’s why, while early memories tend to have the least lasting potential, your strongest memories probably come from your years as a teenager and early adult.
Something else to consider: Your lack of childhood memories may only seem unusual when drawing a comparison to memories you’ve made as an adolescent or adult.
You likely remember plenty of things that happened in the past 5 to 10 years. When you think back farther, some memories might stand out, but you might find it challenging to recall earlier events.
It follows, then, that you naturally wouldn’t have many memories remaining from early childhood. When taking normal forgetting into account along with developmental factors, it becomes easier to see why those first memories tend to slip away.
Having no childhood memories might frustrate you, especially if you get the feeling they’re lurking below the surface, just out of reach.
Experts have different opinions on whether forgotten memories can be recalled, but some researchers believe those memories haven’t completely disappeared from your brain.
Specific triggers later in life may help jog your memory, unlocking the traces that remain. This
Still, if you’d like to try pulling up some memories from early life, these tips might help.
Talk about the past
Discussing experiences you’ve had and other important events can often help keep them fresh in your mind. Talking about the things you do remember with loved ones and asking them questions may help add more substance to those tiny glimpses of memory.
Keep track of what you do remember by writing it down, using as much detail as you can. You might, for example, keep a journal of your memories and add more details as they come to you.
Many of the memories you have from childhood may come at least partially from what others have told you already. Some memories are often patched together from stories of the past, described often enough that you eventually formed a picture in your mind.
Look at photos
Childhood photos could also help you recapture early memories.
Perhaps you received a small toy train on your second birthday and carried it with you everywhere for more than a year. Your parents are astonished you’ve forgotten, since you wouldn’t let the train out of your sight.
But when you look at some photos of yourself from that period, you see the train clutched in your fist on the playground and pillowed under your head during a nap. The memory stays hazy, but you begin to vaguely recall setting it by your plate and insisting it stay there during mealtimes.
When glancing back through old photos, focus on those that reflect everyday life. Memories of things that happened regularly are often stronger than memories of one-time events, so you might have an easier time remembering weekly trips to the candy store with your siblings than your second birthday.
Revisit familiar areas
Going back to the scene of your childhood could also evoke some of those forgotten memories. As you walk down familiar streets and notice nostalgic smells — fragrance can be a particularly powerful trigger — you might begin to recall similar moments from your early years.
On the other hand, if a lot of things in your childhood neighborhood have changed, you might notice these differences even if you can’t remember exactly what things used to look like. You might feel a little disoriented or have a sense of things being in the wrong place. The realization “This isn’t supposed to look like this” could then prompt memories of how things used to look.
Lifelong learning can help strengthen your brain, improving memory and other cognitive functions. While brain training won’t necessarily help you recall childhood memories, it won’t hurt, and it can also improve your chances of retaining the memories you still have.
Both mental exercises and regular physical activity can have a positive impact on not just memory, but brain health overall.
Whether you lived through a turbulent childhood or enjoyed one that was perfectly pleasant, there’s a good chance you’ll lose most of your early memories by the time you reach adulthood — and that’s absolutely normal. Even if you experienced something traumatic in the first few years of life, you may forget it entirely in the normal course of development.
That said, it may be worth talking with a therapist if you notice:
- unsettling gaps in your memory
- memories that conflict what others have told you about the past
- strong negative emotions attached to specific memories
A trained, ethical therapist will help you explore potential reasons without automatically linking these memory issues to childhood trauma.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.