I Can’t Remember My Childhood

Photo by Keoni Cabral - http://flic.kr/p/8ZXpLt - For illustration only

Reader’s Question

How can I try and remember my past? I have little knowledge of my childhood: I can remember hardly anything from the age of about 10 years downwards. I have vague recollections of things when family members talk about the past or when I look at a photo it seems that I can remember that photo being taken and where we are, but nothing before or after photos are taken. As far as I know, my childhood was a very happy one, there being just me and my older sister; she used to laugh and comment that the fact I can’t remember anything was because I was adopted, even though I wasn’t and I know that for a fact. But she used to find it highly amusing that I couldn’t remember anything, because she has a very strong recollection of our childhood and can remember right back to when she was a toddler. Why can’t I remember things? I have tried asking my parents if anything happened in my childhood for me to block things out, but they say no and that I had a very happy and loving childhood and have nothing to worry about. But I find myself double checking that my own children remember things from their past, so as not to be like me.

Psychologist’s Reply

The brain tends to record significant events and the more significant the event, the longer the memory lasts. What is memory-significant for one person is not for another. Old friends will remind us of shared events or comments while we may have no recollection of the incident. For whatever reason, the event was significant for them…but not for us. Happy childhoods are typically happy most of the time and for that reason, the threshold for what’s significant is higher. What you are experiencing is not unusual and it doesn’t suggest that you have blocked memories or have any “deep” psychological concerns associated with your past. Most folks don’t have a lot of memory under the age of 10 years other than what you describe.

Another factor, however, is the ability of the brain to recall our memories. It’s the difference between the library and the librarian. Having an efficient concentration and focus system is having a great librarian who can find, recall, and organize our memories. Stress, for example, makes our mental librarian very inefficient and produces problems with recalling memories.

Maybe it’s just the psychologist in me, but when you mention concerns about what happened in your childhood and double checking your children so they won’t be like you (as if that’s a problem), it tells me you may be going through a stressful time. Folks who are depressed, for example, become preoccupied with the past. I’d recommend reviewing your stress level as that can interfere with your ability to recall memories of any time frame.

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To increase your chances of recalling memories, remember that memories are stored in different brain locations. “Thinking” is just one way to access our memories. Other ways are:

  • Reviewing photographs.
  • Listening to music of that time: music is a great way to activate memories. Songs from childhood and teen years often produce a flood of memories.
  • Cooking something you enjoyed in childhood: smells often jolt our memories. I once entered a restroom and immediately began thinking about a childhood camp I attended. They had changed the soap in the restroom — the same type of industrial-grade soap we had at the camp. It prompted me to write Emotional Memory, an article on the subject.
  • Revisiting childhood locations.
  • Looking at yearbooks: most people make more memories in high school than any other time…because everything is significant.

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