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When do childhood memories fade?

When Do Childhood Memories Fade?

What's your earliest memory, and how clear is it?

You may have noticed that your memories of childhood are a little spotty. It's called 'Childhood Amnesia,' and it's not as frightening as it sounds.

Obviously babies store tons of information to learn about the world, otherwise they would never get smarter. But when do those baby memories -- basically everything before the age of three -- disappear?

A study from Emory University says it's age seven. A few years ago, they recorded as parents interviewed their 3-year-olds about multiple events in their lives. They'd have them ask a specific question: the example given was 'Remember when we went to Chuck E. Cheese's? Did you have pizza?' Sometimes the kids would answer, but sometimes they'd do that little kid thing of changing the subject. 'Zoo!' Some parents were told to keep asking about pizza, others were told 'roll with it and ask about the zoo.'

The researchers divided the kids up into groups for follow-up interviews about those same events. Some were done when the children were between 5 and 7. Some were between 7 and 9. The younger group remembered about 70 percent of the events. The older group only remembered about 35 percent of them, so there's a huge drop-off in early memory right around the age of seven.

Here's something interesting, though. While the older children remembered fewer things about being a baby, they remembered those few things in a lot of detail. With the younger kids, there were more remembered events, but the recall was very general. Apparently, memories that stick around seem to be the ones that have more detail to them -- and that makes sense.

Autobiographical memory requires a lot of detail and understanding. You've got to have a sense of self, you need to understand enough about time and location to fix the memory somewhere, and you need to have enough understanding about what's around you. If you don't understand anything you're experiencing, how can you clearly recall it later?

Plus, the structures of the brain that allow for that sort of knowledge and understanding are undergoing a lot of change. A study of children and young adults by Wayne State University and MIT showed that there are regions of the brain that control attention and strategy that go through intense physical changes during those years. Older children and adults have easier access to those parts.

Between those physical changes and our increased understanding of the world around us, the way we remember things changes, so we become unable to grab onto those weird baby memories.

How much can you remember from being a toddler? Let us know in the comments below.

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susansays February 09 2014 at 10:31 AM

I remember very specific experiences with the aid of a particular photo of when I was around 3 years old. I remember playing with weeds in the garden when I was around 4 or five. I have some memories of school when I was around 7 or 8 years old. Very clearly, I remember the day my younger sister went down the basement steps in her walker; she was an infant & I was around 3 or 4. The memories seem to be associated with places. Now I am 73.

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hdruble February 09 2014 at 12:19 AM

One of the first memories I have was when I was about a year old. Mom was working in the garden and I started running for the road in front of the house. By the time she noticed me I was running down the road to the highway. The more she called and run after me the harder I run and laughed. The next early memory was of getting behind the kitchen wood-burning stove. She tried to get me out but I could not be coaxed to her way of release. Finally she grabbed my arm to help me out. I received an ugly cut just under the eyebrow. No stiches then just a scar which I still can faintly see. I have many memories of the two's and three's. My childhood memories are tied to places I lived and so I can almost tell exactly how old I was. Most early memories were tied to family, friends and events- my sisters birth, grandma visits, visits to friends, and my independent streak. I am 78 years old.

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Gail February 08 2014 at 11:32 PM

I seem to have memories that stem back to the birth of my brother. I can almost close my eyes and recall the moments. I was only 22 months old. I remember what I was wearing. Sitting in the back seat of a neighbors car with my Mother and new brother. I was put off because I couldn't hold him but was allowed to have his feet and blanket lay on my legs. I have several other memories before the age of 5. After the age of 5, I remember most any event that was of any importance in me. Some events were not that big but remembered. Such as my Uncle saying I had great eyes after finding a quarter he dropped in the yard. I was 3 years of age. I am 67 years and most memories of my childhood were vivid and extremely happy.

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beltaneblume February 08 2014 at 11:24 PM

I'm almost 60 years old. I remember being in a basket on a bike with my aunt who was about 14 years old and I fell out and almost drowned in a drainage ditch. We were out in the fields, all alone. I remember my aunt wrapping me in her skirt while my clothes dried. I clearly remember how scared she was that her mom, my grandma, would find out. I was around one year old.
Another time when I was between two and three and I hated the bottle of oatmeal they always put in my bed for me. So, One day I opened it up and poured it under the pillow. No more bottle after that! There are plenty more memories from around that time.
The time I only have a couple of memories from is from 5 to 10. My grandma raised me and she died when I was 10. Whatever happened the day she went to hospital is a complete blank. I was the only one with her that day and I can't remember anything. I don't know if it was an accident, violence or if she was sick. There is no memory at all and it bugs me to no end. No one to ask either.

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Ken February 08 2014 at 11:20 PM

I have a few early memories from before my second birthday. I know these memories are before my second birthday because they are of the place I lived up until about two months before my second birthday, when we moved to a house. These memories are a bit dim, but they're there. The very earliest is only that I was sitting in my back yard and there was someone big just up a slope from me. That would be shortly after my first birthday. I can remember being told who that was, and the name. Other memories are of watching TV in the apartment next door (we didn't have a TV); of a little girl in the neighborhood with pigtails on a tricycle; of going to visit the house and meeting the old man who owned the house. There are many memories in the time between the move and the time I started school at 5. I remember, right before my third birthday, my mother asking me what kind of cake I would like for my birthday and telling her that I didn't want a cake. I wanted a pie. She asked me what kind of pie, and I told her, "Blueberry." (To this day, I love blueberries and blueberry pie.) I remember certain things that happened at nursery school when I was 3 and 4. Perhaps the most unusual memories are of things political--an "I Like Ike" button I wore when I was 4; my parents were always talking about politics and I knew they liked President Eisenhower and someone named Dick Nixon (I wasn't quite sure that his name wasn't Nick Dixon), and didn't like someone named Stevenson; I remember going out to the front porch to get the newspaper (I had learned to read already, and I liked to read the comics), seeing a picture of soldiers and a tank, and asking, "Mommy, what are the army men doing?" "They're Russians, and they're in Hungary." "I'm hungry." "No, not hungry. Hungary." That is quite specific--it's November, 1956, when the Russians crushed the Hungarian revolution; I was four years, four months old.

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ozalot February 08 2014 at 11:20 PM

My father died when I was only 4 yrs. old. But I remember being on a beach with my mom and dad. I was on a blanket sitting by a rock and my mom yelled at my dad to pick me up quick, because there was a crab coming right at me. I remember vividly my dad swooping me up with one of his arms under my arms and holding me against him. Years later I asked my mom how old I was when that happened and she said I was not more than 2 yrs. old. That is my earliest childhood memory, and I am now in my 60s.

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conniehf February 08 2014 at 11:13 PM

I remember standing in the front seat of the car between my parents. If we had to stop quickly, my daddy would throw his right arm in front of me to keep me from falling. I also remember walking between my parents on the way to a football game and picking up my feet and they would give me a little swing.

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debrapan February 08 2014 at 10:49 PM

My parents took me to a toy store near my 1st birthday and bought me a stuffed elephant. They referred to this event through the years. I may have thought I remembered this since they had mentioned it numerous times, but I can describe the store... the peg board wall behind the counter where the stuffed animals hung and the square of linoleum where the bikes sat. According to my parents they took me there once and only once.

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miryerhart February 08 2014 at 10:46 PM

We lived in a log house in Colorado when I was two. It had a big fireplace at one end of the living room. I remember it in great detail because I had the whole cowboy outfit to go with it. Now I'm 73 living in the high desert country of Nevada. I still think I'm a cowboy !!!

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butchburel February 08 2014 at 10:27 PM

I don't understand what the study is saying. I have memories going back to less than the age of two and of where I lived at the time. I can assure you that I'm no smarter than anyone else but my memory is pretty good going back. My father use to call me "Mr. Memory". Perhaps one's memory can be too good to be useful to anyone but the one who remembers.

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