Why Can’t I Remember Anything from Childhood?

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Reader’s Question

I can’t remember anything from my childhood except for a few little things. I know my childhood wasn’t a happy one from the few memories that I do have. My mum says the reason why I don’t remember things is probably because of some sort of trauma but I can’t remember a thing.

When I was 12 I remember having dreams, although they were more like very scary nightmares that involved me and other children being assigned to feed wolves, who would then attack people. In one instance I woke up after seeing my dad being killed by wolves and that was one of my scariest nightmares I’d ever had. I’d heard once that dreams are like the past that you have forgotten.

Why can’t I remember the past? It seems so important to me that I remember it yet for some reason I can’t.

Psychologist’s Reply

There are many misconceptions about both personal memories and dreams, so your question allows us to tackle both topics. First, as a proportion of our total experience, our memories correspond to an extremely small slice of our past. To warrant being remembered, our experiences typically have to have had a strong emotional component, or at least involved something unusual. Second, personal or autobiographical memories are not stored as video recordings — faithful portrayals of what happened. In fact, personal memories are continually re-made, sharpened, and focused with each instance of recall and description. So, by the time we are adults, our memories of childhood are actually memories of what we have recalled and described, rather than memories frozen in time, simply reflecting what happened.

In some instances, our memories of childhood were not formed at the time the events took place, but created later as the events were described to us, or we saw photographs, or imagined what might have happened. If that process happened when we were quite a bit younger, it may feel as though we are recalling memories formed at the time of the event, although those memories are based on what we pictured in our mind’s eye when the events were described or imagined later. All of this illustrates the infamously unstable nature of personal memories. It also underscores the fact that people vary widely in how many childhood memories they claim, and how vividly they can describe them. Such wide variation falls in the normal range, and does not necessarily indicate a problem or a history of trauma. Movies and television programs, however, would have us assume differently.

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Then there is the issue of what processes are responsible for the content of our dreams. Freud set in motion the assumption that our dreams have psychological meaning; revealing our unresolved conflicts and unconscious material looking for expression. Contemporary researchers, however, take a very different perspective. It’s widely believed that dreams are simply the side-effects of the physical stimulation our brain undergoes during a particular stage of sleep. It’s assumed that this internal brain stimulation serves important functions, such as perhaps promoting growth of connections among neurons, or individual brain cells, and consolidating memories. As the brain is stimulated, we experiences sights, sounds, emotions, and other sensations, and our minds race to try to make sense out of these experiences. The dream is simply our mind’s way of trying to weave together a stream of experiences that matches the crazy mish-mash the mind is experiencing.

I hope that what you take away from this very brief overview of how contemporary psychologists view the nature of dreams and childhood memories is that your experiences seem quite normal or typical, and not an indication of a traumatic past. It can be frustrating to realize that you have very few childhood memories, but that frustration results from a (perhaps unrealistic) expectation as to what you should be able to remember. Just because other people claim to have many more memories, and often vivid ones, it is easy to assume that those memories were formed at the time of the events, and are accurate. Memory researchers know that both assumptions are liable to be wrong.

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