On the flight home, I sat and recalled some of the delightful interactions I’d had over the past several days with my two grandsons. One in particular stood out. As I read the youngest a story for oh, probably the 15th time, we pretended to pluck up cookies, fruits, and other goodies off the pages and pretend to eat them. Later, he sat with the book, repeating this on his own. His older brother saw this and laughed. When I reminded him that he and I did the very same thing just a few years earlier, he had no recollection. It made me think about all the other precious games and little talks we’d had that were also lost and how the ones between his little brother and me would be forgotten, too.
When do we really begin to sock things away into our long-term memory? How far back in childhood can something be remembered? I often ask this question in my child development classes. Many will be quick to answer with an event from middle or high school. But then, I ask them to sit quietly a moment and really think back. One by one, earlier and earlier memories begin to surface- most of them not particularly clear, but memories nonetheless.
For the most part, though, no one, including myself, can remember anything much before age two. Hmmm.
There are a couple fascinating theories about why we have trouble remembering anything any earlier. One involves something called “infantile amnesia.” According to the theory, it isn’t until about 18 months that we begin to develop a sense of self- the understanding that we are separate beings from anyone or anything else. In addition, we are moving from listening to speech to actually verbalizing. Before this time, we are just part of the landscape, part of the big picture. We’re merged with other people and everything that’s part of our surroundings. So, nothing that happens is specifically designated to us in particular and therefore, not stored to memory. As a side note, this theory may also help to explain why sharing is such a struggle for young toddlers. If an 18-month-old sees his environment and what’s in it as part of himself, asking him to give up a toy truck would be much like asking him to take off his arm and share that.