What have you forgotten?
March 8, 2018 6:17 AM   Subscribe

When and why we forget childhood events I remember things from my childhood but they seem to be ones that upset me. I rarely recall happy moments!
posted by Yellow (30 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The article doesn't mention the difference between genders which I feel is a significant miss. Many years ago a couple of doctor friends happened to mention how girls tend to retain memories that start much earlier than boys do and were discussing the scientific reasons behind it. This was news to me so I tested this in my own way (just asking male and female friends and relatives about their earliest memories). To my surprise it mostly proved to be true. The women often had memories as memories from as young as 2 old while the guys had a hard time remembering anything under the age of five.

My earliest memories include accidentally eating soap and how disgusting it was; The time a baseball thrown by a guy outside crashed one of our windows and glass went everywhere; Interrupting my family members at a party because I didn't like the fact that I wasn't the center of attention; and that time I suddenly had a weird sense that I had been alive before I was ever born... Like I suddenly had a flash of "I was reincarnated" before I ever knew that word or even knew the concept of death. I guess all of these could in their own way be seen as traumatic on some small level, but they weren't really unhappy either.
posted by fantasticness at 6:50 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]

Just wait until your forties onward - you will increasingly remember bizarre minutiae from your first ten years.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:57 AM on March 8 [9 favorites]

Like I suddenly had a flash of "I was reincarnated" before I ever knew that word or even knew the concept of death.

I remember a feeling of floating up out of my body and being with the light bulb outside in the hallway, before I went to sleep. I doubt anyone had told me about "out of body experiences"; it was just a thing that I experienced.
I've told people, several times, that my father died when I was 7, and had them surprise me by saying "oh, you must not remember him". You really think you wouldn't remember, at that age, that there used to be some guy living in the house with you?
posted by thelonius at 7:03 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]

I wonder to what extent memories come adrift from their time frames, basically, how certain can we be of the when, to match the what? For a long time I thought my oldest memory was going to pick out a kitten for my third birthday. I have a clear memory of the walk and the house we went to and could name the street. I also had a memory of visiting my grandfather on his sick (death) bed from around the time I was four or five - I was able to describe to my older cousin where his bead was in my grandparent's house (downstairs front window, rather than bedroom). When I was 33 I was at my mother's funeral and was surprised that his gravestone said he died a few days before my second birthday.
posted by biffa at 7:03 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]

I wonder if repeatedly remembering things helps to "cement" them? Like, there are some childhood memories I have really firm recall on - but those are the same things I've been remembering and telling people about for years - getting really caught up in a story about a kid playing "explorer" when I was three, my theory about "where babies come from" when I was seven.

Although - I do remember other things, but they're more in a sort of "snapshot" format instead of a narrative structure - like, me standing behind my aunt at her wedding when I was six, and playing with her veil (I was trying to figure out which of the many layers of tuile before me were "veil" and which were "dress"), me standing up in my crib at age two and coloring on the bedroom wall, really early in the morning; my mother bursting into tears and hugging my father at the front door when i was three, and had come home to tell us he'd just learned his mother died.

Actually, that last one is probably as clear as it is because at the time Dad came home, I was coloring a picture, and then when I was nine I found that picture shoved in a drawer somewhere and suddenly that memory came whooshing back like I was in the Matrix, and I was able to remember more detail (like how seeing Mom cry freaked me out, so I started crying silently too, but I tried also smiling at Mom at the same time, real big, to cheer her up - "look Mom, I'm smiling, please don't you cry").

So I wonder if it's these recal-later-in-life moments that repeatedly cement the earlier ones, and if sometimes our recall of fleeting moments is a little better.

Just wait until your forties onward - you will increasingly remember bizarre minutiae from your first ten years.

Or throughout your life. As one of my grandfathers was aging, there were a couple years where suddenly he would bust out with these random stories from his life we'd never heard before - like one time he just spontaneously started telling a story of being on a business trip and joining in with a bunch of guys at a table in the hotel bar, and gradually he realized they were trying to hit on him - and then they got kind of aggressive about it and he had to slip out through the hotel kitchen. ....he busted that out during Christmas dinner one year and we were all gaping at him, because we had never heard that one, and had no idea what prompted it at that moment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:13 AM on March 8 [11 favorites]

I don't recall much from my childhood, but what I do remember seems to always be pretty negative stuff, and starts-off in kindergarten. I can't really recall anything concretely happy.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:18 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]

My first memory is being left on a sandbar in the middle of the Chesapeake with some relatives while my dad and his brother scooted around in the boat that deposited us. There were dead horseshoe crabs and I was concerned what would happen if the tide returned.

Also wearing rubber pants and having an accident. There were tears. I remember being very short, as in the kitchen counter towered above me and the houseplants were like trees.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:30 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

....You know, now that I think of it, I wonder if there isn't something like a "snapshots reinforced by narrative" thing going on. Because that story about me and the explorer story (I link to it in my comment above) is a full-on story when I tell it. But the things I actually recall are more snapshot-y:

* Me sitting with the other kids in class and being read the story,
* Me and all the other kids making pretend flashlights and flags with our initials,
* Me standing with the other kids waiting our turn to crawl through the kiddie tunnel,
* Me out in the hallway, heading for the staircase,
* The face of the lady who came down the stairs and caught me, and her saying "you're not supposed to be here", and
* Me back in the playroom, crawling through the tunnel again, and having the strong feeling that it wasn't as fun as the kind of exploring I'd really just done.

Maybe our childhood memories are in that snapshot-y format, and the ones that "stick" most are the ones we can actually shape into a narrative. Usually, anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

A lot of memories are more like memories of remembering. I think I remember myself playing with certain baby toys and wearing certain baby clothes, but I suspect what I actually remember, is seeing my younger siblings with those things, and recognizing them as familiar objects I had interacted with myself not too many years previously. Now I just have a memory of a memory of those things.

I think photographs give you memories of remembering. My parents have a picture of me as a toddler, with my new baby sister on my lap, sitting in a chair that was in my family's living room for all the years I was growing up. I can see myself in my minds eye, sitting in that chair, holding my baby sister, but I suspect it's just that the photograph was on the wall for so many years, and I had later siblings who I held as babies. Sitting in a familiar chair, holding a baby, yes, I must remember that. But I suspect I just remember the picture, the chair, and other babies.
posted by elizilla at 7:30 AM on March 8 [7 favorites]

Damn, I guess that's why I'm so mediocre -- wasting too much brainspace on memories from before the age of 7! Or 5, or whichever number you want to use as the cutoff.

In seriousness: I think at least part of the difficulty is the lack of mental "landmarks" to help contextualize and cement the memory. School (different teachers, different schools, etc.) is a very regimented, very clear memory-landmark; before that one must rely on things like having moved house or some such. Since "kindergarten" in Taiwan can start from the age of three (xiaoban, zhongban, daban) -- at least when I lived there -- and my family moved around a lot, I am spoiled for choice. It's definitely vague and sparse in comparison to normal memories, but I have at least one memory for each landmark.
posted by inconstant at 7:32 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I have several memories that are jogged when I look at a photo, but some memories from nursery school have no photo association - being one of the two Daisy Dukes when we played Dukes of Hazard in the quiet room (which must have been a misnomer), going through the church bazaar and picking out a crochet purse the size and shape of an oreo, ripping off the top of a puffy sticker on the slide, not being able to play catch b/c i didn't bring in a rinsed out bleach jug to make into my catcher's scoop. some later memories lean towards sadness/disappointment (taking too long to put on my shoes so Grandpa Vincent and i couldn't go and see the housefire), but these are mostly neutral. i also remember talking to my mom in jr high or high school about how we could know if the bleach bottles were unbleached enough to use them for catch. the paranoia coursed deep through these veins.
posted by ovenmitt at 7:37 AM on March 8

I had a weird collection of memories from 3-ish resurface after I had a baby, of my mum feeding and burping my brother. I've always had a memory of meeting him as a newborn but other than that my memory was blank for the first couple of years of his life, like he was basically scenery until he could do more things. But once I had my own newborn I had this rush of memories of my mother doing all these newborn care things, like some part of my brain went "You appear to not know wtf you are doing! Wait right there, we've got something in the archives."
posted by Catseye at 7:52 AM on March 8 [16 favorites]

I don't get how childhood memory is different from adult memory, where I can't remember what I had for lunch 2 days ago without seriously thinking about it, even though it was probably good and I probably had a good time.

I can remember plenty of things from childhood, both happy and sad, but often not without prompting because living in the past full-time (aka old people syndrome) is kind of depressing and I've got new memories to make.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:53 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

That's funny, I mostly remember happy things from early childhood. Birthday presents and surprises, giving a gift to a friend, reading a book with a friend, seeing a boombox and thinking it was incredibly cool, counting the laundry quarters and otherwise hanging out in an incredibly hot apartment one summer day...A whole lot of my earliest memories are from around age 2.5 and 3, which is when we moved about a thousand miles from where we had lived before. I don't remember anything about where we lived before I was 2.5, though.
posted by rue72 at 8:06 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Memory in general is bizarre. I put the scissors in this drawer, not that one - and, 6 months later, I can go to right where they are, when I want them. How the hell do I do that?
posted by thelonius at 8:31 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

I have always had a lot of extremely early memories in the sub 3 year old range that I put down to the major context change of my family moving from Montreal to just outside Toronto. The context change is important because I can distinguish when memories happened by location cues in a way that people who don't have a singular big change like that cannot (My family only moved that once).
posted by srboisvert at 9:19 AM on March 8

Side Note: Those of you who know parents that kinda fuck with their kid while young due to the assumption that they won't remember it later on should show them this thread.
posted by fantasticness at 9:33 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

This conversation reminds me of Karim Nader's theory of memory, where the act of remembering actually rewrites the memory, especially these "flashbulb memories" that people are describing in their early ages. So retelling a story multiple times, or viewing a photo of the event is likely to alter your memory.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 10:01 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]

I read an article a few years ago about a study conducted on the reliability of memories. The gist was that as time passes, your memories warp and often can't be reliably trusted.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:42 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Memory in general is bizarre. I put the scissors in this drawer, not that one - and, 6 months later, I can go to right where they are, when I want them. How the hell do I do that?

If you ever figure it out, let me know, because I'm always losing the fucking things.

I tend to side with the "memories are stories that we tell ourselves, and change somewhat in the telling" school of thought. I've occasionally stumbled across examples in my own memories of the Mandela Effect, even regarding Star Trek trivia, which I'm a fanatic about.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:54 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I have virtually no childhood memories. I could probably, if pressed, come up with 20 distinct memories from 7-12, and nothing from before that.

I also rarely remember dreams.

I also have aphantasia.

These may all be completely separate issues, but it’s seems to paint a picture of a person who keeps writing to a part of the brain that’s just not accepting data.
posted by greermahoney at 12:57 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

I remember locations incredibly well. I can draw floorplans of the nursery I went to in a town I haven't been to in 30 years. My day to day memory of things is fairly terrible.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:22 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

My earliest memory is of "playing" with the two stone lions that flanked the lower steps of the walkway leading up to my parents apartment. My mother confirmed this memory, a bit astonished, because I was less than two years old. I remember being afraid to walk upstairs in the dark hallway of another apartment when I was not quite four. I remember my mother breastfeeding my baby brother when I was five. I also remember being the flower girl at my aunt's wedding - I had a stiff taffeta purple dress and a gold horse pin on the white lace at my throat, and they had forgotten my flowers, so I had to walk down the aisle next to the ring bearer with my hands clasped together. I was six.

There are plenty of unhappy memories as well; running from my father when I was seven because I think he wanted to pull my loose tooth out; getting punched by said father; the abuse my father heaped on my mother and trying to press the pillow over my head so I didn't hear it (ages from the beginning to age 10). I try not to dwell on those memories.

I also remember many dreams vividly and have a dream diary next to my bed.
posted by annieb at 3:27 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I can very precisely date my earliest memory: My second birthday. It's brief -- I came down the stairs at my house (I can describe the ugly carpet and the walls and the pictures on the walls) wearing yellow footie pajamas, and when I got to the bottom there were adult legs in front of me, so I looked up, and it was my grandma, instead of my mom, and she said, "Your mom and dad went to the hospital to have the baby!"

I'm sure the reason that stands out SO MUCH was that it was the first time in my whole life my mom WASN'T there when I woke up, and the fact that my brother was born on my birthday is just luck. :)

I can sort and date my memories from age 2 to age 6 or so based on which of my siblings were around and how big they were -- benefit of being the oldest! Brother in arms? I was probably 2. Brother toddling? I was 3 or 4. Sister a baby? 5 or 6. I have a couple of other memories that I know are from when I was 2 years old because he was a little-little baby being fed a bottle (and my parents had their old couch which they got rid of before my sister was born), most of them related to going to the kitchen to get a cookie.

Most of my earliest memories are just that sort of flash memory of doing normal kid stuff around the house or yard, really random things (I vividly remember the lilies of the valley in the shady corner of the yard, but not my swingset that I know was there and I've seen in pictures). Eating cookies. Watching our cat turn a somersault (she was gifted). Not much narrative or emotional content to most of them; just a flash of sense memory, most of the time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:51 PM on March 8

I read an article a few years ago about a study conducted on the reliability of memories. The gist was that as time passes, your memories warp and often can't be reliably trusted.

Are you sure that's what it said?
posted by Daily Alice at 3:52 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

The gist was that as time passes, your memories warp and often can't be reliably trusted.

A recent study I saw suggests that every time you access a memory, you re-write the connections between the neurons responsible. Over the course of time, the resulting memory gradually changes like a session of the kid game "telephone", the process being very similar to overwriting a computer file with a newer version.

Traumatic or strongly emotional memories make a stronger imprint, which may be why people don't remember all the boring minutia of childhood.

That being said, I have two really early memories. One is when I reached up to hug my father and accidentally scratched his eyeball with my fingernail, requiring a trip to the eye doctor. I was 18 months old.

In the other, I'm standing in my baby bed gnawing on one of the horizontal side bars which was at just the right height to give a good chew. You get your lower lateral incisors at about 10 months.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 4:38 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

I have two sisters. We have compared our memories of childhood and decided that we remember things in very different ways.

My oldest sister cannot remember what the house looked like, but she remembers the dip in the sidewalk for the driveway just before your reached the house. Visuals didn't stick with her, but kinetics do. Likely if she were back in our old house she would be reaching for the light switch automatically because her hand would remember which way to go, the way you never forget how to ride a bicycle. My oldest sister is unusually good at systemizing, creating paths mentally of this, then that; this or that, and relationships of this type. When she was introduced to a new classful of kids in elementary school she created a binary search tree in order to learn to distinguish them. But she has almost no visual memories. She remembers sequences and intentions, not things or places.

Our middle sister can remember the floor plan of the house we lived at when she was five, well enough to get the cupboards, windows and bathroom fixtures in their correct places. Lay out is important to her. She does spatial relationships well in her memory.

I remember things: My toy box was a rectangular cardboard box, the top half fitting down over the bottom half like a sleeve, with red and blue printing on it. The bathroom was pastel mint green with tiles going only partway up the wall. Our kitchen chairs were made of hardwood, old fashioned style, some of then painted depression green, and some of them white and some of them stained dark.

None of us remember events well. I remember places because they are a type of things, but I will not remember the order of streets. I will remember individual items but only sometimes where they were located. We all remember feelings well: resentment, anxiety, anticipation, bliss, comfort, pain, hunger, restlessness. Places, times and things we remember have emotions attached to them. I remember delight at being allowed to climb out of our basement apartment through a window. I loved my wishnik troll doll and feel happy and comforted by the thought of it. But my sister's wishnik trolls fill me with anxiety because I once carried them for her outside in the front pocket of my hooded jacket and one was lost and she was angry at me and upset.

Tracing these memories back, the conclusion I came to is that infants, being pre-verbal remember visual, kinetic, emotional and physical memories. They use a lot fewer labels - a green chair is not like a similar white chair to a pre-verbal infant until it knows the word chair. They are not categorized the same way. Either the baby/toddler remembers the green chair or not, but doesn't substitute a generic chair the same way an older person will. However the child might remember the sensation of sitting - in which case sitting on a toy chest might have the same sensations as sitting on a chair and the memory is "I was sitting..."

Later, as the kid learns language and uses it increasingly the visual memory and tactile memory and the kinetic memories get used less and less. Instead of remembering say, the burning sensation of a UTI and the sound and echoing sensations of being at the children's hospital, the child will use her words, "I went to the doctor" and the tactile memory will fade. It becomes harder and harder, I think, to recall visual impressions the more you learn words to describe things and harder and harder to recall tactile or kinetic memories. All these memories get recoded into words. If you try to remember the mall that was near the house when you were four, the word mall will lead to some conflation between the specific mall and all other malls you have heard of, seen or envisaged.

Your memories will become a mixture of recall from the different parts of your brain that you primarily use. I remember the mall from when I was four as being on the right of the house, but not close, and being full of light and primarily white but that light and whiteness may only be the light and whiteness that I would see when I turned my head and raised it to look to the right, rather than being a memory of the mall. It could just be a memory of the sky and daytime in that direction. Meanwhile I have a feeling that the mall had glass doors just beyond a parking lot, but that could easily be a conflation with other malls I have seen since, and when I try to hold still and let the memory come back to me what I get is a mall three hundred miles South in Massachusetts, and almost twenty years later, the first suburban strip mall that I got to know well.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:34 PM on March 8 [5 favorites]

I have a lot of memories from childhood, but my favorite has got to be this one involving my cousin, Jimbo. When I was a kid my family and extended family on my dad's side all lived in Florida near each other, sort of around Bunnell (we lived in Flagler Beach and then DeLand). We were all pretty much Florida crackers. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived in a trailer on 40 acres of forest and didn't have the internet or anything, so cousin Jimbo comes to our house one time and my dad and I teach him how to sign up on America Online and such. So he's going through the registration and finally he reaches "marital status", and so he types "street fighter", and my dad says "no, it says MARITAL status, not martial status" and it was the first time I cried from laughter. To this day I crack up thinking about it.
posted by gucci mane at 6:13 PM on March 8 [4 favorites]

"I have two sisters. We have compared our memories of childhood and decided that we remember things in very different ways."

This is pretty common. Sometimes in a disturbing way. Like very often if a divorce or abuse happens in a relationship, the older sibling remembers more of the details and will resent the parent they feel was the cause. Meanwhile the younger siblings will often not remember and not hold any resentment. Then they get older and both will swear that the other person isn't remembering things right.... but I feel that the older siblings memories are usually more reliable.

Some neighbors of mine who happen to be muslim got into some drama when the daughters were insisting they grew up in an abusive and sexist household and the brothers didn't remember growing up in such a household and insisted the girls weren't remembering things right... but obviously their experience of growing up would have been different than their sisters' anyway despite living in the same house with the same parents.
posted by fantasticness at 8:57 PM on March 8

as a kid, i remember remembering essentially being a newborn. i was an incubator baby, and i thought i had a distinctive memory of being in the incubator. in my early adolescence (11-13) i was very interested in (contemporary, rather pop-y) psychology and neuroscience, and was exposed to what was then very "new" ideas and research about how memories are "rewritten" in remembering , and also that one cannot actually remember things from before i don't remember what age maybe three or four , all supposed memories from therebefore basically being fabrications. i quite readily accepted that this (impossibly) early memory was most likely a fabrication, but what's interesting is that once i accepted this i lost access to the memory altogether - so since then i no longer "have" that memory
posted by LeviQayin at 10:44 PM on March 8

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