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Childhood amnesia

4 Apr 2009 9:17 PM - Dr Roger Morris

Childhood Amnesia is the common inability of adults to remember the earliest years of childhood, characterized by a relative absence of memory recall prior to 3 or 4 years of age. The idea of childhood amnesia is not a complete absence of memories, but a relative scarcity of memories prior to age 4 years that cannot be accounted for by pure ‘forgetting’. Research is showing that children in the under-4 years age bracket are excellent learners and are quick to acquire and retain information. However it seems that much of these early childhood memories are lost in adulthood through ‘child amnesia’. Much research has been and continues to be conducted about childhood amnesia.

Proposed Explanations

Freudian explanation

Freud was always controversial, and his explanation of childhood amnesia was no less controversial. Freud theorized that childhood amnesia was the result of the mind’s attempts to repress memories of traumatic events that occurred in the psychosexual development of every child (the so-called ‘repression theory’). Freud’s theory has been heavily criticized, mainly due to relative lack of evidence.

Language explanation

The incomplete development of language in young children may be a cause of childhood amnesia, due to a difference in the manner in which memories are encoded and stored in the brain. Some studies have postulated that language development plays a pivotal role in childhood amnesia.

Emotion explanation

This theory relates to the strong connection between emotion centres in our brain and memory. It has been suggested that differences of emotions experienced by infants and adults may be the cause of childhood amnesia.

Context explanation

This theory states that differences in perspective of external events between children and adults may be a cause of childhood amnesia. Infantile perceptions and understanding are different to adults and may affect how memories are encoded and stored. Memories may be closely connected with the development of self-perception and self-awareness (around 2 years of age). It is thought that the inability of adults to be able to recall early childhood memories relates therefore to these memories not being mentally flagged as pertaining to self

Research has also found distinct gender and racial variations in the ability to recall early childhood memories. Females tend to have earlier and more vivid memory recall (as well as long memories as any husband will attest). This may relate to early conversational reinforcement of early memories. Similarly, New Zealand Maoris tend to have the earliest childhood memories and this may be due to conversational reinforcement by close family members early on in life.


1. ‘You Must Remember This’, Jenny Richmond.

2. ‘Where Have Those Early Memories Gone?’, Patricia J. Bauer. APA online, Vol 18: No. 12, Dec 2004.