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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.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
ae12wrangell February 08 2014 at 12:38 PM

As a 55 year old, I can rember back to age 4. I rember seeing something on TV, which I wasn't paying attention to. Mom had on a soap opera and I was close by with some trains, or whatever. Then the TV switched to Special Bulletin, and some guy I never saw was telling us of a report that a President Kennedy was shot. And there'd be further details as we get them. Back to the soap opera for a little. Then it's back to that guy. He had to tell those at CBS that President Kennedy died 'some 2 hours ago.'
The following September I was in first grade. Things did not go too well. One day I was asked to stay behind for detention. There was about 3 or 4 other students, so I was not the only one. The Sister who was looking over her students got asked to 'come to the Principals office. As a 5 year old to me the Sister seemed to be gone a good hour(Hey I was 5!). So I stood up, went back and got my jacket, came back to my desk and grabbed my book and went home. I lived only 3 minutes away. I get in the front door and take off my jacket, kiss Mom hello. I sit down to tell her how school went. I didn't have to. The school Principal was on the phone.
Hello. Mrs. _____, Is your son home?
He is Sister. Why? What'd he do?
(What the rest of the conversation is I have no idea, but it had to be close to this)
Your son took it upon himself to leave the school. He was being held over for 15 minutes of detention
He did what?!
Mrs. _____. I don't want to embarrass you or your husband, or even your son, but I have decided that he has to do something.
What is that Sister?
First, is your husband home?
No, not yet, why?
I would like your husband and your son to come to the Convent an explain to his teacher, and myself why he did what he did.
They will be there Sister and I am very very sorry.
What time is best?
7:00 PM
Okay Sister. I will tell Mr. _____ when he gets back from work.
(Both phones hang up)

So your day was okay, right?
Yes. No problems Mommy.
Well then tell me why your Principal called a few moments ago to tell me you just left the school and were not dismissed.
(I probably gulped. I knew my life was coming to an end)
You get upstairs to your room. Your father will be talking to you when he gets home.
Yes Mommy

Up I went.

Then I had to explain my actions to about 30 Sisters who were sitting in the Convent. You have no idea how scared I was. Over the course of an hour, I apologized to my teacher, whose classroom I skipped out on; and to the Principal, it was her school.
All the Sister's said they forgave me, which was a bit helpful.

To this day, my only run-in with an authoratative figure was in first grade.

(I'd add a few other pieces of my mind, stuff I have long since forgotten, but don't have enough space)

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patricianderson1 February 08 2014 at 4:46 PM

I'm going to be 65 in a few weeks and my earliest memory is when I was 4 1/2.. My family emigrated from England on the HMS Britannic. It had a huge child's playroom and I can still see my favorite toy, it was a Swan Rocker, where you sat on a bench seat and on either side was 1/2 of a large Swan which made you feel you were riding on it's back. I also remember when we were pulling into NY harbor, my family was in our stateroom when the announcement came on telling us we would be sailing by the Statue of Liberty in a few minutes. We all crowded around the Portholes with my mother holding me up to the window, when we sailed past, a wave came up and hit the window we were staring out of and obstructed my view for a few seconds. I vividly remember my mother taking me by the hand and running out the stateroom to the deck so I could get a good look at her. I knew we were headed for Texas to join other family that emigrated before us and I was certain that when I saw that statue, we were in Texas!

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patricianderson1 patricianderson1 February 08 2014 at 4:55 PM

Correction; The ship's correct name is the MV Britannic

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minicat61247 February 08 2014 at 1:44 PM

I remember back to when I was 1 year old taking my first steps by a pond with my mom and dad. I also have a picture of dad and myself from that day. I can't say I remember EVERY day from that time, but I remember incidents from when I was about 9 months, 18 months, 2 and 3 years old. I can't be the only one who has very early memories!

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laclone minicat61247 February 08 2014 at 2:14 PM

No. You're not the only one.

I'm 56 now, but I vividly remember a lot from the first 2 years of my life. The trailer park, the trees and yard around our trailer, crawling around & chasing after a toy flying saucer with flashing lights, The first time I stood up, my sister arriving 11 months after me, a neighbors window display, ..., and other happy memories from then I still cherish.

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tmpfilemgt February 08 2014 at 4:42 PM

I think if you asked children, teens, and adults what they remembered I think you would find more that what your are refering to. Incidential chucky cheese events are not memorable. Events that create an emotional reaction are remembered for life. This is why you need to ask what is remembered of childhood.

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sgantt30 February 08 2014 at 4:39 PM

I am 83 years old I remember at age 3 or4 I was walking with my mother down a dirt road (we were country) as we walked and I was bare footed I stepped on a snake, we were going to a neighbor that was having a meeting called 4 H. for the mothers of school children ( I was not school age yet) so a 4H .stood for health (reminds me that Ms.Obama is not the first for health teaching.) I at 12 yr. old took the health book and used it to learn to drive the car .back to my 3 year old memory, the lady that had the meeting gave me a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallow. (we were so poor I never had that before) My mother ,when I was 5 had a baby boy I remember him chocking on piece cake. It was later when I was 8 that I remember how I took care of mom as she had a disease and was going to die many memories right during that and my dad got me out of bed around 3 am and stood by her bed when God called her home. many memories after that I never forgot

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mark February 08 2014 at 10:58 AM

i still remember everything because i was abused when i was a child.i still remember all of the whippings i got as a child. this is one reason i still hate my dad

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tracykick mark February 08 2014 at 11:28 AM

I'm so sorry to hear the Mark. I hope you are able to recall at least a few happy memories.
There are many caring people out in the world and I hope you have someone who loves you like you deserve to be loved.

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jojowhite320 February 08 2014 at 6:47 PM

Your wrong. I had a twin and I remember things from 2 yrs old and I'm 70 years old.

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paaspa February 08 2014 at 2:06 PM

I remember many events that occurred between my 3rd and 4th birthdays, but no memory of time before I turned 3. I think I remember many details of those events because they were "out-of-the-realm of normalcy." Until my 4th birthday I lived in a very abusive home environment, and I clearly remember many times of physical and emotional abuse as if they happened yesterday. Once I was removed from that environment and went to live with grandparents, I find I have many fewer memories of childhood events because they were more the "norm."

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jjholtkamp February 08 2014 at 4:34 PM

According to Freud, memories don't fade, they are repressed, especially if they involve breast feeding, toilet training, . . . . .

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boowah February 08 2014 at 10:30 AM

I'm 4 years older than my brother and I can remember him being born. I have vivid memories of lying on my rug in kindergarten and rocking in a broken child's rocker prior to that. I even remember being pulled in a red wagon before my dad came home from WW2. One factor that enables those memories is that I tend to live in the past. I see those days as the best years of my life with everything beyond High School having gone steadily downhill. Maybe that's what enables me to hang onto those memories so well.

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ljhanaway boowah February 08 2014 at 10:58 AM

I think what I question is whether I remember an actual event or if I'm remembering the memory of that event. So many memories have been reviewed over and over in my mind I can't tell if it's these later thoughts I remember or the event.
My earliest memories seem to begin when I was around two and are of events that made a big impression on me. I remember being terrified of dogs as one apparently knocked me down when I was a toddler. I do not remember that event but do remember being on the sidewalk in front of my grandmother's house screaming in terror when a dog approached me. I also vaguely remember getting over my fear with an old gentle dog. However, I thought the dog was a collie and was later corrected on the breed by my mother. So, how much is actual memory and how much is corrected memory when we think we're recalling events?

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