Childhood Amnesia: Why Do Some Memories Fade and Others Don't?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why do childhood memories fade? (agsandrew/Shutterstock)

Why is it that you can recall some memories like your second grade little league tournament, but not others like your sixth birthday party?

New research out of Emory University has identified a crucial turning point in memory development.

Scientists have found that by age seven, childhood amnesia begins to take effect, in which early memories are forgotten at a faster rate, and sometimes lost entirely.

Joining The Takeaway to explain the science behind our childhood memories is Patricia Bauer, professor of psychology at Emory University and lead author on this study. 

Think back—what is your very first memory from childhood? How old were you and what can you remember? Tell us in the comments. Check out the video of our Host John Hockenberry asking his own young son to remember back.

 

Guests:

Patricia Bauer

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [50]

Walter Moyer from Warner, N.H.

My earliest memory was in our apartment in Queens , N.Y. I had to be about 16-18 months old , being born in January , and this was in warm weather . I sat in a high chair , kicking my feet when my mother said '' stop that , you're driving your father crazy ''. Not a great memory but one that evidentially stuck in my mind . I have a couple other strong memories of early childhood but this is the oldest though not the nicest that I can remember .

Jan. 28 2014 04:01 PM
Amma Owusu-Akyaw from New Jersey

I think I have two memories that tie for the earliest.

One is from when I was 3 years old. I remember getting up in the morning, walking down to my parents bedroom and seeing my mother holding my baby brother, who was born at 2am the night before.

The other has no real time-stamp. All I remember is driving in my dad's car in the late afternoon and hearing a catchy jingle on the radio. About 6 months ago, I recognized where the jingle was from -- NPR's 'All Things Considered'.

Jan. 27 2014 04:39 PM
Christine from Corvallis, Oregon

As a child I insisted that I remembered the day my father came home from the war (WWII). He was marching in a parade and looked very handsome in his white uniform. My Dad was indeed a medic during the war, but I was born in 1957 so would not have been around to witness any heroic return. It turns out that I did watch my Dad march in a 4th of July parade with the firefighters from Hicksville, N.Y. (at least I think it was Hicksville). He was the fire department physician, so he wore white when he marched. I remember beaming with pride, no matter what the occasion.

Jan. 24 2014 01:30 PM

I was about a year old. I was sitting in a high chair and my mother was feeding me. Three other people were in the kitchen and they were talking at me. I didn't understand what they were saying but I guessed they were trying to communicate.

I remember thinking, Who are these people and what am I doing ere?

Jan. 24 2014 12:46 PM
Melissa from Seattle

My earliest childhood memory was when the Volcano Iliamna blew. I was almost 2 years old, living in Homer, Alaska, and I remember playing in the ash while my mother shoveled out the driveway. She was VERY pregnant with my sister, and I still remember how she'd made me wear a wet bandana over my face to keep from breathing in the airborne ashes. For years afterwards, I had vivid dreams about clouds of volcanic ash filling the sky.

Jan. 24 2014 12:38 PM
Melissa from Seattle

My earliest childhood memory was when the Volcano Iliamna blew. I was almost 2 years old, living in Homer, Alaska, and I remember playing in the ash while my mother shoveled out the driveway. She was VERY pregnant with my sister, and I still remember how she'd made me wear a wet bandana over my face to keep from breathing in the airborne ashes. For years afterwards, I had vivid dreams about clouds of volcanic ash filling the sky.

Jan. 24 2014 12:36 PM
Pat Travell from Matthews NC

January 1938 in London aged 2years old. As I walked down the street with my dad I saw my mother waiting outside our door. I ran towards her and she took me into the front bedroom to see the new baby lying in my crib,...I said "Oh,wee baby sissie" (My mom was Irish)

Jan. 24 2014 09:57 AM
Ariel from Ohio

I find that my memories don't go as far back as some people's, but I can remember the summer when I was 6. A few snippets of things like riding in a refrigerator box down the hill with all the neighborhood kids, dancing and being silly with the family dog, and my friend and I turning our bikes upside down to play "ice cream truck" (the pedals and wheels mixed the flavors and we would exchange imaginary ice cream cones). I also remember a dangerous situation one winter around that same age where I was sent into the "igloo" being built by all the neighbor kids, to dig the tunnel because I was the smallest. I got stuck in the tunnel and became panicked until one of the adults came and got me out, luckily it never caved in on me but even now I get anxious about being trapped or stuck in small spaces.

Jan. 24 2014 09:40 AM
Carolyn from That was in Canada

My earliest memory is actually a deja vu. I was sitting with my grandmother petting puppies on a narrow boardwalk that we used to walk from the house to the beach. I distinctly remember feeling like I'd been in that moment before. Oddly, somewhere there is a picture of that moment (which I just remembered about). I was two.

Jan. 24 2014 09:35 AM
Polly Rothstein from Purchase, NY

Maybe 15-20 years ago, I asked my mother if I ever had a plastic bubble over a wound. She said that I had one over my vaccination, which was on my right thigh, and which I picked at. So I was just 1 year.

Jan. 23 2014 03:55 PM
Heather from Louisville KY

I was almost 3 years old. We were moving to a new house across town. While still at the old house, I remember my bed sitting on the very large pick-up truck. I can still remember the details of that moment - the sky, the truck, the temperature of the air .... I don't associated any negative or positive emotions.

Jan. 23 2014 03:50 PM
Raychel Patino from Queens, NYC

I was 2ys and 5mts. I clearly standing in my crib watching my mother before her mirror putting on her make up, wearing a dark green suit - I learnt years later that my memory was of the evening my mother was getting glamorous, preparing to fly to London with my sister, 10yrs older when people dressed up to fly (late 60"s) . In retrospect I suspect I remember it as I was very emotionally affected - the excitement and sensing a separation.

Jan. 23 2014 03:34 PM
Maxime from North East

One of my earliest memories was that of being in some kind of a 'container' with my twin sister in what was another crib near by. I remember her crib looked different from mine. We would pass toys between us. This was before we were talking, but I don't recall how young we were.

Jan. 23 2014 03:30 PM
michael rodriguez from Llouisville, Kentucky

Earliest memory, I was a toddler. Must of been a daily thing. We were stationed at a Nike Missile base in Maryland. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor playing with my toys near the screen door. I can see the redbrick building outside. My father in his uniform comes in and sweeps me up. I'm 60 now.

Jan. 23 2014 03:22 PM
Alexander Bailey from Oklahoma City, OK

My earliest memory is of my 4th birthday in 1984. I remember not knowing most of the kids who were there, but I also remember that I got a plastic two-headed dragon and a He-Man Power Sword. The sword was destroyed in a backyard battle some time later, but I still have that dragon. These presents were just the beginning of what has become a lifelong love of Dungeons & Dragons.

Jan. 23 2014 03:07 PM
Judy from Brainerd MN

I was not quite two when my mother was in a terrible accident. I remember my brother holding me up to her hospital window outside, as children were not allowed inside. Later a nun would hide me in her habit and usher me in to see my mother in her room.

Jan. 23 2014 02:57 PM
Mary Ratliff from Reston, VA

My earliest memory is sitting in the middle of the movie theater in my hometown, watching the scene from E.T. where he hides in Gertie's stuffed animals. I was two when the movie came out, but I made my mom take me to see it during every reissue, and probably saw it a dozen times before it came out on home video.

To this day, I tell everyone it's one of the reasons I became a filmmaker, because I remember how powerful and wonderful that specific memory was. Thankfully the theater was just recently restored and reopened as well!

Jan. 23 2014 02:55 PM
Fotios from Athens,Greece

At 63 I still remember tens of events in my life since before I got one year old and for every year thereafter. However, it's been about ten - twelve years that I started forgetting the most recent soccer history and results, but not those from my early teens when I started following the sport. When I was about ten, I remember I was able to read a stanza of medium size six - eight lines, recite it, go on with the remaining five,six,nine stanzas the same way, then read the entire poem once, recite it and remember it for the next few days. I have also noticed that I have a stronger "acustic" memory than "visual" memory.

Jan. 23 2014 02:46 PM
Tom Salony from Cresson, PA

My earliest memory is looking out the window with the young couple who rented rooms in our home, as we watched for my parents to come home from the hospital with my newly born brother. I was three and a half.
I always knew I had very few early memories, but was recently astonished to realize that I have absolutely no memories of that infant in our home!

TOM

Jan. 23 2014 02:33 PM
M. Curren

I remember my mom, bathed in the sunlight from the hallway, walking toward me to get me out of my crib. I believe I also remember her soothing voice telling me we were going to take some clothes to the children at X, the local orphanage. My mother was dressed like Lucy, in a belted shirtwaist dress.

I am older than my first sister by 18 months, and we eventually had two cribs in this room. At the time of this memory, however, mine was the only crib in the room. And my mother, possibly pregnant at the time, was still all and only mine. I LOVE this memory and have always hoarded in my heart. I still do, at 64.

Jan. 23 2014 02:33 PM
Kathy in Honolulu from Hawaii

I was still an infant; probably 7-8 months old. I was in my high chair at the old laminate table we had back then. My mom was talking to her friend, about another lady they both knew. I clearly remember looking at them and thinking how surprised they would be if they realized that I understood virtually everything they were saying. I wanted a drink of milk (this was way before the "sippy" cups available today) and thought that if I tried to pick up the metal cup myself it would probably spill and it would interrup them and I'd get my drink. I reached for the cup (which I can still clearly recall) and it tipped over. Mom turned and said something about me being thirsty and gave me the drink. I tell people about this when they say things they think their child may not understand. It's clear to me that small children understand and recall far more than we give them credit for!

Jan. 23 2014 02:28 PM
Jerry Harp from Portland, Oregon

In my earliest memory, it’s 1963, and I’m riding on the handlebars of my brother’s bike—no safety seat or helmet (we didn’t think of such things in those days). I’m two.
A policeman pulls us over and tells my brother he can’t tote me like
that. My brother and I stand watching as he drives away. My
brother says that once the cop is out of sight, I can ride on the
handlebars again.
“What if he catches us?” I ask.
My brother says if he catches us, he’ll take us to the police
station, where they’ll put us in some chairs and turn on the juice. I
picture wooden chairs connected to those bubbling juice machines I see
in drugstores. From the way my brother describes it, I know that it
would be no good to sit in a chair connected to bubbling juice. For
years the sight of those juice dispensers makes me uneasy.

Jan. 23 2014 02:25 PM
Audrey Johnson from Minneapolis

Earliest memory I have is about being very sick, and being in a crib. THe room was blue and it turns out it was my parents room. I remember crying and my grandmother picking me up and holding me. When I spoke about this later on my grandmother said she was amazed that I remembered this as I was 16 months old. I had the chicken pox. That was 1958. I have other early memories. My parents hired an abusive babysitter who chased me behind a sofa with a wire hanger. I escaped the house and walked to my grandmother's house 1/2 mile away. I was 3 1/2 at that time.

Jan. 23 2014 02:08 PM
Mike Simmons from North Little Rock, Ar.

I was at least four months away from my third birthday because my younger sister had not been born yet. I remember getting up one morning with my mom. It was still dark in the house till she turned on the kitchen light to start preparing lunches for my dad and my older sister, who was a fourth grader. I loved green grapes, so Mom put some in a bowl and walked me into the living room where we had a red little-kid chair. I sat down and started eating my grapes and she went back into the kitchen to get the lunches together. That's my first memory.

Jan. 23 2014 02:06 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

My first memory is of me running out of the house naked and laughing my ass off. I was on my grandparents bungalow colony upstate New York in the Borscht Belt. They ran a retirement community, so I had fifty sets of grandparents trying to capture me.

Jan. 23 2014 01:39 PM
Johnnye Gerhardt from Omaha, NEBRASKA

At 9 months old I, with my parents, spent time on a davenport with a distinct pattern and colors. My mother confirmed my detailed description later but had no idea how I could recall it since we lived there for only a month and there were no photos of it.

Jan. 23 2014 01:15 PM
Veda from Philadelphia

My first clearest memory (between 1 & 2 years old)is my grandmother calling me to come to the table to eat dinner. I stood up and went to the table. Everyone started screaming she's walking, look she's walking. And my brother saying I told you she could walk she just won't.

Jan. 23 2014 01:10 PM
Ron from Portland, Oregon

My earliest memory is of being on the cold brick stairway of our apartment building while my mom took my picture. When I related that memory to her, she first was surprised, then showed me the photo. I was six months old. True story.

Jan. 23 2014 01:04 PM
Alison S from Doylestown

When I was 2.5 a little boy drowned off the dock next to ours at our summer lake house. I remember seeing the lights of the ambulance through the tree branches.

Jan. 23 2014 01:03 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

Riding my little blue tricycle, which I loved truly, on the sidewalk near the front porch, my Mom watering the fir tree which she had planted a few years earlier. The tree is still there, 62 years later.

Jan. 23 2014 12:59 PM
Eileen from Portland

My first memory is laying on my back in the living room and putting my binki under the couch then crying to get my Mom's attention.

Jan. 23 2014 12:57 PM
Matt from Vancouver, WA

I am not sure how old I was, but it was before I was three. I was laying down and looking up at lines crossing in front of me. I know NOW that I was laying on my mother's lap in the back seat of my uncle's VW bug and that the lines were telephone lines visible through the back window. Then? All I remember is a sense of "what is that?" All non-verbal. The next memory - cracking walnuts in bed with my Dad. I know - no car seat in the first memory and then bad eating habits in the next. It was the 1960's!

Jan. 23 2014 12:55 PM
Josephine from Phila

I remember the first time I saw grass. I was a babe in arms and when my father tried to place me down upon the grass I specifically recall seeing the darkness (dirt) below the grass and feared that I would sink into it. All I could do was cry. I was an awful handful that day because the occasion for the outing in the first place was 4th of July...yes, I also remember my first fireworks...it was NOT GOOD!

Jan. 23 2014 12:33 PM
Jody Howe from Doylestown, PA

When I was about three years old I tried to jump up in the air, flip over, and land on my feet. I couldn't do it and was puzzled. I distinctly remembered being able to do it when I was younger than three. Of course what I was remembering was my dad lifting me up, spinning me over his head and setting me back onto my little feet.

Jan. 23 2014 12:26 PM
Charles Cook

My son, when almost three years old, was talking with me about mortality when he suddenly told me that he remembered being in the mountains, then in my penis, and then in his mother's belly where he was sad and mad. He had never before been to any mountains, although that is where he was conceived.

Jan. 23 2014 12:25 PM
Brush from Utley, Texas

My first memory was of my father throwing grasshoppers into spider webs by a barn and watching the spiders wrap them up in silk. Not sure how old I was...maybe 2 (?)

Jan. 23 2014 12:25 PM
Adam Goff from South Jersey

What a great topic! My mother has always insisted I was making it up, but my earliest memory was President Reagan addressing the public on the Challenger explosion. This was in January of '86, two months shy of my third birthday. I still remember that evening very clearly, our house was very quiet and solemn as the president came on our old console TV. It's something that has always stayed with me.

Jan. 23 2014 12:24 PM
Brian Graham from Akron, Ohio

My earliest memory is from my first Christmas when I was only 10 months old. I remember sitting on my grandmothers lap and repeatedly throwing a teddy bear over the arm of the couch and making my older brother pick it back up for me. Apparently something was significant enough about this for me to remember this event so vividly. My next oldest memories are from right before I attended preschool. I am in my 40’s now.

Jan. 23 2014 12:24 PM
sally from Detroit, MI

My first clear memory was about 1 yr old. I was sitting in the high chair. My mom placed a hot meatloaf on the table. The meatloaf had a river of ketchup running on the top. I put my finger into the attractive red ketchup and IT HURT! I remember crying.

My second clear memory occurred a year or so later. We were camping in a tent. It was raining. My mom picked me up from the playpen in which I slept and snuggled me in her sleeping bag. She said, "Can you feel the rain drops falling on our face?" I remember thinking I don't feel anything, but I will tell I do so that she won't keep asking me.

Jan. 23 2014 12:24 PM
Charles Cook

My son, when almost three years old, was talking with me about mortality when he suddenly told me that he remembered being in the mountains, then in my penis, and then in his mother's belly where he was sad and mad. He had never before been to any mountains, although that is where he was conceived.

Jan. 23 2014 12:24 PM
evi from portland oregon

I grew up in los angeles. I think that my earliest memory is of going to a specific auto mechanics shop which was destroyed in the 1971 quake. I was 3 when that quake hit, so the memory comes from before that. I remember the multi-colored pinwheels they had strung across the front lot, and I remember seeing them from a lying-down position in the backseat of the car.

Jan. 23 2014 12:23 PM
Ben Mundie from Albany, OR

My first memory is bending a piece of copper into a U shape and sticking it into a wall socket - fascinated with electricity ever since.

Jan. 23 2014 12:23 PM
James Drake from Ft. Lauderdale, FL

This feature took me back to a college class long ago. It was at CCNY in a Humanities class. The instructor told the following joke:

Three psychiatrists are at a conference on memory comparing notes. The first says he had a patient who remembers taking his first steps. The second says, this is hard to believe, but his patient remembered the pain of child birth. The third says he had a patient who could remember further back - he remembers going on a picnic with his father and coming home with his mother.

Jan. 23 2014 10:47 AM
Susie from Florida

I recall being a toddler, maybe two or three. We were having Friday night dinner at my grandparents home and some how I sneaked away to explore their big quiet house. I was halfway up the stairs when my uncle scooped me up and took me back to the dining room. My grandmother gave me the biggest hug and I felt so safe and loved. She died suddenly when I was 8. I have kept this memory of her always. So thanks for making me cry in the car this morning. I love your program. All the best.

Jan. 23 2014 10:16 AM
Sam Winston from Detroit, Michigan

robert. you are a liar. it's scientifically impossible for you to have memories that early that are of any recognizable feeling. your elbows weren't even fully formed yet, let alone your brain.

I'm not sure if it's ego, desperation to try and be above the fray, or what. it's definitely not the same as John's son who is 4. he has no reference so of course he's going to say he remembers, from an adult I'd expect more intelligence. get out of here with your fairy tales robert, this is science.

Jan. 23 2014 10:04 AM
Robert S Hazelton from Upstate NY

This may cause disbelief, but I remember my birth! Yes, I remember a feeling of extreme pressure around my body, and then suddenly the shock of very bright light and extreme cold. Later I came to understand that off to my left a nun was administering to my birth. I could not shake this "memory", not after 60 years! Believe it or not!

Jan. 23 2014 09:59 AM
Dannielle Kukar from Coconut Creek, Florida

I was maybe 4 years old and with my mom while she was shopping for shoes. The shoe salesman was smoking a cigar and I became fascinated with the ash at the end of it. I placed my head under the ash and looked up at it. Unfortunately, the ash fell into my eye and we had to leave the store for the emergency room at the nearest hospital. I remember the pomade the doctor gave my mom to take home. Luckily, my eye was fine. Kids!

Jan. 23 2014 09:57 AM
Sam Winston from Detroit, Michigan

I saw some ghosts once when I was like 1 or 2years old. I remember a dream of a mega zord type monster (this was the 80's, perhaps inspired by thunder cats?), remember getting an enema because my mom was freaking out then I took a crazy looking dump with my feet on a little step stool.

Jan. 23 2014 09:52 AM
Tracy Kahley from New York, New York

I was 3, and I remember my father teaching me how to make a peanut butter sandwich without using a knife, instead spreading the peanut butter with a spoon and folding the bread in half. I love this gentle memory of my dad.

Jan. 23 2014 09:23 AM
Jayne from Miami

My earliest memory is of standing in my crib (I was probably around a year old) and looking out the window and seeing cows. Our house's back yard backed up on to a dairy farm in northern New Jersey.

Jan. 23 2014 09:11 AM

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