This Is Where Your Childhood Memories Went – Your brain needs to forget in order to grow


Image: Illustration by Gérard DuBois/NAUTILUS
We called them fairy rocks. They were just colorful specks of gravel—the kind you might buy for a fish tank—mixed into my preschool’s playground sand pit. But my classmates and I endowed them with magical properties, hunted them like treasure, and carefully sorted them into piles of sapphire, emerald, and ruby.

By Ferris Jabr | NAUTILUS

Sifting the sand for those mystical gems is one of my earliest memories. I was no older than 3 at the time. My memory of kindergarten has likewise been reduced to isolated moments: tracing letters on tan paper with pink dashed lines; watching a movie about ocean creatures; my teacher slicing up a giant roll of parchment so we could all finger-paint self-portraits.

When I try to recall my life before my fifth birthday, I can summon only these glimmers—these match strikes in the dark. Yet I know I must have thought and felt and learned so much. Where did all those years go?

Psychologists have named this dramatic forgetting “childhood amnesia.” On average, people’s memories stretch no farther than age three and a half. Everything before then is a dark abyss. “This is a phenomenon of longstanding focus,” says Patricia Bauer of Emory University, a leading expert on memory development. “It demands our attention because it’s a paradox: Very young children show evidence of memory for events in their lives, yet as adults we have relatively few of these memories.”

In the last few years, scientists have finally started to unravel precisely what is happening in the brain around the time that we forsake recollection of our earliest years. “What we are adding to the story now is the biological basis,” says Paul Frankland, a neuroscientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. This new science suggests that as a necessary part of the passage into adulthood, the brain must let go of much of our childhood.

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