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Many people can recall happy childhood memories: playing with friends during recess, birthday parties, that time you accidentally set fire to your parents’ living room (don’t worry — we’ve all been there). But it’s also pretty common to find that you don’t remember much about being a kid.
The thought of not remembering much — or wondering whether you experienced childhood trauma — can be pretty upsetting. So let’s take a look at what causes childhood amnesia and what you can do to make some of those good memories a bit more vivid.
So what gives? After all, childhood is when you discover the world and everything in it. You instinctively remember some of those lessons — such as learning that candle flames are painful for your fingers or that it’s not appropriate to just poop on the stairs as you please. Shouldn’t you remember the rest of it too?
First things first: You probably don’t have a problem with your memory, even if you can’t remember your third birthday.
The truth is that most people can’t recall that stuff (ask your friends or family — they’ll likely say the same thing). It just comes down to how our brains are formed. They’re squidgy lumps of matter, not computers.
Rat brains develop memory in a similar way to human brains. And studies on our little rodent cousins have shown that, like us, they can remember learning experiences from their childhood (like “falling over hurts” and other greatest hits) without remembering other details.
It’s just the way our brains work. A lot of different factors (like individual brain development and wider culture) might mean you remember slightly more or less about your childhood than others do. It doesn’t mean you’re broken.
It’s not always trauma
Many people who worry about a lack of childhood memories fear that, to protect them, their brains have repressed something bad that happened.
Fortunately, that’s not always the case. Psychology OG (psychol-OG?) Sigmund Freud was one of the first to suggest a link between childhood trauma and a lack of memories, and researchers have been exploring the possibility ever since.
In the 1990s, the theory of repressed memory became so widespread that some therapists made the mistake of confusing anxiety, eating disorders, and other neurological issues for signs of childhood abuse. These docs then suggested to their patients that something awful had happened in their early years and they didn’t remember it.
As a result, some people in treatment developed false memories of incidents that had never happened. That’s absolutely not good.
But if this is something you’re worried about, remember this: Most people who have experienced childhood trauma, especially in its most serious forms, remember the incidents.
Trauma can certainly affect your memory (more on this in a minute). But if you have absolutely zero memory of anything bad happening and nothing else from your life seems suspicious, then you’re probably not repressing memories — it’s prob just regular childhood amnesia.
Can trauma or abuse play a role in childhood amnesia?
Research indicates that childhood trauma and abuse can absolutely affect your memory. While you’re unlikely to forget traumatic incidents completely, you may find you have distorted memories of what happened.
Many abuse survivors recall incidents in “flashes” — images that aren’t quite coherent, since the brain will often disassociate to protect itself. This can also mess with their perception of time.
Survivors might feel as though they’re in limbo. Traumatic memories can obliterate earlier, more positive memories of childhood. And because the traumatic memories are often also fractured, people may be left with very few memories of their childhood.
People who have experienced trauma and abuse can find themselves stuck in vicious cycles for years. If this sounds like what you’re experiencing, consider talking with a therapist for support.
There are some other reasons you might not have a full mental photo album of your childhood. But they prove that your brain is healthy and functioning. Hurrah!
The first is that human memory, especially in children, mostly focuses on events that had a big impact. So you probably have vague memories of playing with your friends but nothing specific. You may remember blowing out birthday candles or getting a gift but little else about your fourth birthday.
But you’ll clearly remember that day you accidentally set fire to the living room, because your mom chewed your ear off about it.
Other people might even remember incidents far more than you do — precisely because of that impact.
For example, you might have been present when your sister fell into the swimming pool. The adults will remember it clearly because they had to save a child. Your sister is also pretty likely to have a clear memory of it, for understandable reasons. But you might not have understood the incident, so you don’t remember it so well.
Another reason for childhood amnesia is that our brains go synapse-wild when we’re babies. Synapses are the things that allow electrical currents in our brains to move around. It’s estimated that before age 2, our brains produce 40,000 synapses per second. Ah, those were the days.
You’d think that would make your memory super awesome, but it’s actually the other way around: Some experts think this can contribute to memory loss.
The good news is that when you hit puberty, your brain does a spring cleaning and prunes a lot of unneeded synapses, improving your memory. This means you can totally memorize your crush’s phone number. So yeah, who needs synapses anyway? (OK, definitely still you, but we get that your crush’s phone number is mega important.)
It can be annoying not to have a better recollection of your childhood, especially if you remember it as happy. On harder days, you might wish you could reach back into your brain and pull up a memory of having the time of your life on a swing set.
Who doesn’t want to bask in those sunny, carefree days again, when you could smoosh your face into a cake and people thought it was cute rather than a problem? But thanks to synaptic pruning, combined with adolescence (a time when most people really start to discover who they are) being more memorable, those early years can become lost.
So, how can you go about rediscovering some of those memories?
Talk about the past
One of the simplest ways to regain some memories of your childhood is simply to talk with people! If you have older siblings or you can talk with your parents, sit down and discuss the old days with them.
You’ll probably find that your parents remember a ton of things you’ve completely forgotten, and it may help punt those memories back into your recollections. Family vacations, your favorite belongings, even memories of grandparents and other relatives — you may find that something tickles your memory and opens the floodgates.
Just be prepared for all the embarrassing (and possibly sad) ones too.
Look at photos
Photos are great for regaining memories of your childhood.
Most parents like to take plenty of pics and prove what a cute little button you were. (“OMG, what happened?” Your parents are wrong. You’re still super cute.) This means they probably captured lots of everyday things. Seeing those events again can often trigger memories.
Don’t focus so much on one-off occasions. Instead, pay special attention to the everyday items. Do you remember the toys you’re holding or the clothes you’re wearing in photos?
Maybe you hadn’t thought of them in years, but one look at your favorite “My Little Pony” toy or a particularly cute T-shirt could bring memories back.
Memories are more than visual. You might find that when you revisit a location, the sights, smells, and sounds can bring back happy recollections.
Try taking a road trip to a place you used to go to with your family. You might find that little has changed and that the hot dogs there taste just like they used to — and OMGoodness do you remember that time you ate them by the lake? You do now! (Alternatively, it could now be a Wendy’s. It’s a gamble, but it might pay off.)
You could even go local and take a trip back to your old school. Just seeing the buildings or smelling the familiar scent of the schoolyard or cafeteria could bring back the old days a little.
You can also help your memory by keeping it active. Just like you work out your muscles, if you keep your brain engaged and busy, it’ll reward you by performing better.
There are multiple ways you can do it too. You don’t have to go full-on Mr. Memory and recite every capital city in the world every morning (though all power to you if you can!). Even learning a language gives your memory an excellent workout.
Brain training games have also been found to improve memory, especially in younger people. And they couldn’t be easier or cheaper to find, with apps like Peak, Elevate, and Lumosity waiting for download on both iOS and Android.
In most cases, not being able to remember your childhood very clearly is completely normal. It’s just the way human brains work. On the whole, childhood amnesia isn’t anything to worry about, and it’s possible to coax back some of those memories by using sights and smells to trigger them.
Sadly, a hole-filled memory of childhood can happen due to trauma or abuse, making recollections patchy and distressing and forcing out memories of happier times. Survivors can often feel like they’ve lost their childhood entirely.
Most people won’t experience repressed memories. But if there are strange gaps in your memory, you find contradictions between what you remember and what you’ve been told, or you feel strong, unexplainable negative emotions associated with people or places, it may be worth talking with a therapist.