Childhood amnesia, as this phenomenon is known, is universal. Most of us can’t remember anything before the ages of two or three, and those we do have from before the age of five are very sketchy. But why is this?
“None of us remembers anything before the ages of 2 or 3. And that’s early. Most people can’t remember anything they experienced before the ages of 4 or 5,” says Harlene Hayne, who studies memory capacity at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Research has shown that children are expert learners and quick to acquire and retain information. Children remember events. However, these memories that can be accessed when we’re children are lost in adulthood due to childhood amnesia.
“The ages vary a lot, but it’s usually to do with something significant. People remember things like falling of a bicycle… moments that were important to them.”
Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster says that the average age for our first memories is 3 years and 4 months, but some people can even remember events that happened when they were much younger.
Hayne agrees that the brain continues to mature over an extensive period of development, and that this is an important step for establishing long-term memory.
However, children can remember certain events prior to when this region is fully developed, so this explanation doesn’t give us the whole picture of the phenomenon of childhood amnesia.
What’s more, there are some surprising cross-cultural differences in the ages of early memories.
According to a transcultural study, the average age of first memories for Europeans is around 3-5, compared to 4.8 for East Asians, and 2.7 for New Zealand’s Maoris. “These differences cannot just be explained by brain maturity,” says Patricia Bauer, from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
WITH INFORMATION FROM BBC WORLD