I’m four, going on five, and walking with my class along a corridor that goes between the room where we take our naps to the room where we paint our pictures. I’m wearing the tiny red-checked uniform of my kindergarten. It has a pocket on the right hand side, and inside it is a piece of tissue paper that I used a few minutes ago to blow my nose. I’m fingering it nervously because I don’t know what to do with it now. There is a rubbish bin, I think, by the bathroom, but I am too shy to ask if I can leave the little choo choo train we’ve made—chugging along so smoothly—to walk over there and throw it away. I keep worrying at the tissue, wadding it up and tearing bits off it as I walk.
Then I have an idea. I am the last one in line, the caboose to this convoy. I roll the tissue into my palm, tight and invisible, and casually remove my hand from my pocket and lower it to my side, still balled up. Like a practiced sneak, I slowly unfurl my fingers one by one. The tissue falls, my step quickens. In a moment I am a few feet beyond it—and no one has seen. I let out my breath.
This isn’t the earliest memory I have, but it’s one of the few that has a distinct narrative—it makes me laugh to consider how terrified I was of doing anything even remotely against the rules, or that called attention to myself—and how devious I was willing to be in the service of that anonymity. It tells me I have not, perhaps, changed all that much.
There are other things I remember: eating porridge with slices of boiled chicken at my upstairs neighbor’s house, singing “You Are My Sunshine” in rounds in the car, burning the skin of my knees on the scratchy red carpet that only existed in one room of my family’s old apartment, getting Barbie dolls out from under the bed. But in general, the impressions I have of my early childhood are few, vague, and fugitive. When I can see them at all they are like the patterns on the insides of your eyelids—try to focus on them, and they change.
It’s not uncommon for a few startlingly clear visions to persist from a very young age. When I ask, my friend Regina says she can feel herself lying on her brother’s warm, comforting back, the two of them in a cot surrounded by the noise of strange children at a daycare center; she was 18 months old. Yvette, not much older than that when she was in the hospital for heart surgery, has on her tongue the taste of the popsicle a nurse thought to give her: Grape. But for the most part, when it comes to early memories we are all, relatively speaking, paupers caressing a small handful of coins.
You might imagine that young minds haven’t yet developed the neurological capacity—the physical equipment, so to speak—to store memories about experiences over time. Brain structures known to be vital for processing episodic memory, after all, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, do not develop fully for years.
Sensible as this theory seems, it’s hard to pit it against the facts. Six month-old babies can remember previously formed associations, like the fact that if they kick their leg just so, a pretty mobile that some strange scientific hand has tied to their ankle will twist in the air above over and over, like a bird, all color and light. And pain, of course, just as well as pleasure, makes its way into the brain. When my nephew was barely a year and a half old he crashed his head against a glass table. For days, my sister says, he’d return to the same spot and show her how it had happened, pantomiming his bump, face crumpling into a facsimile of the wail he’d wailed when it first happened. It is almost as if—not really, I know, but as if—he had some intuition that the moment would not last long, and thought to place it with someone who could hold it after he himself had forgotten.
Amazingly, scientists have been able to show that the ability to form complex episodic memories starts literally in the womb; we know this thanks to Dr. Seuss and two curious researchers. In 1986, A.J. De Casper and M. Spence asked pregnant women to read aloud one of three similar excerpts from The Cat in the Hat every day, several times a day, for six weeks before they gave birth. Three days after each baby was born, an ingenious set up allowed them to “choose” which of the three short passages they wanted to hear by varying the rate at which they suckled on a teat. By significant margins, the tiny infants showed they remembered and preferred the familiar reading to the ones they had never heard before. (A control group of unread-to babies had no particular feelings on the subject.)
In other words, children are not, by any means, sieves through which experiences flow like water without ever being caught. Yet the empirical evidence that most of us hold fewer memories from the earliest years of our lives than from later ones is impossible to ignore. If people are asked to describe as many childhood memories as they can, almost none of the items they recall will have occurred before their third birthday; after that, the number of memories they cite soars markedly. A statistical analysis of memories plotted against age finds that the scarcity of early recollections is even greater than you would expect after taking into consideration the fact that the older a memory is, the more likely it is to have decayed.
Caroline Miles, questioning a hundred college-aged women in 1893, found that the average age from which a first recollection came was 3.04 years; no subject of hers cited an event, impression, or sensation dating from when they were younger than 2.6 years. Since then, over a century of studies of early childhood memories have arrived at conspicuously similar figures, with some small, but interesting variations across culture and gender: Women typically remember slightly more childhood details than men, Americans typically reach slightly further back than do Chinese.
Psychologists have a name for this lacuna in our lives, this band of time at the end of which, it seems, we each line up to drink deeply from Lethe’s stream and give up most of what we once knew. This first forgetting. Depending on who you ask, it is called in the literature either “infantile amnesia” or “childhood amnesia,” names which have something of the absurdly overblown—they make us all sound like so many desperate soap opera characters bumbling about in a world full of strangers, our whole past lives erased at a single stroke.
And yet there is, truly, a note of tragedy about this very ordinary amnesia. We have reason to believe that the sensations we have as infants and very young children are exquisitely intense, full of vivid sounds, shapes, smells, images, and ideas that fly across our consciousness from every corner. Because we are less cognizant of established patterns, less able quickly to file away each impression into a neat category as soon as it arrives, we are (in the way so many of us strive to be in our adult lives) flooded with excitement and adventure—hyper-aware of the bright, sweet world in which we live.
But look at us now. Look at me. In the face of all that wondrous experience I imagine to have once coursed through my brain like rivers of fire, here I am today: working eagerly at the meager store of memories I have from my childhood as if they were a few small pieces of tissue in my pocket, wearing thinner and thinner with each rub.
As with so many questions about memory and experience, no one really knows for sure. No one, any longer, believes Freud was right about the mind’s need to quell the “trauma” of psychosexual development by repressing memories associated with growing up, as if the entire adult human race were a limping legion of soldiers who had survived a war, each tender from the wounds of childhood itself.
Instead, most current theories seem in one sense or another to treat the fierce, beautiful memories from this period of our lives like lost treasure, buried under the ground somewhere and we without a map.
Maybe, some have argued, it takes a while for the brain to develop the ability to properly label individual memories with information about the way in which they arose, so that while we may on some deep level remember an experience itself, we are unable to access it because we no longer remember its source. If, for instance, you had not yet developed a sense of self, to what anchor could you safely attach your memories of things that happened to you? I like this notion. I think of balloons that ought to be tethered to a pole, to a tree branch, to a chubby wrist, coming free of their loose knots. Once they had flown high, ranged far away, could you bring them home again?
Or maybe, others say, the tens of billions of synaptic connections we lose as we age into adulthood prevent us from retrieving the recollections we formed early on, because many of the complex strings of firings that once led our minds from here to there have now been broken somewhere along the line. I like this notion, too. I think of a spider’s web that someone has walked through, intricate and gauzy. All unknowing, they shake their heads free of the fine threads as they step away, and leave this corner fragmented from that. I think of a house with ten thousand rooms and a thousand locked doors.
And maybe, still others guess—the ones, I imagine, who love words as much as I do— before we can use language to describe an event, even if only in our minds, memories live in silence. Wanting names, they persist—but cannot be called. I love this notion best of all. It feels less lonely than the others.
I think of a mind full of old friends, waiting for me to remember who they are.