Childhood amnesia is the inability we adults have to remember the events that we lived or witnessed from birth until when we were around four. Our first memories are generally precise events, traumatic or first-time, pictured as few-second films. My most remote memory is the crying of my mother and my aunts during the funeral of my maternal grandfather, two months before my fourth birthday. What is yours?
There is no scientific unanimity on the reasons behind such gap. This columnist held a hypothesis that he naively considered original until his search for some academic support in Google revealed that several investigators had already developed similar approaches. ‘My’ hypothesis is quite simple: Young children do not have episodic memory because they lack both a record-keeping self that takes notes of experiences and a record-recalling self that can retrieve stories at any time.
The sense of identity is the outcome of a super-complicated assembly of neuronal software (hitherto incomprehensible) that self-programs, rudimentarily at the beginning, and self-runs for the rest of our existence; this software does neither require a programmer nor an operator. When the sense of identity is emerging, as it happens in early childhood, there are neither reliable records nor possible recollections. One of the most important works of the newborns’ brains is starting and channeling such extraordinary program so that, in parallel with her physical development, the little baby eventually becomes a ‘little person’.
This conversion takes around four years and its progress has been verified in many ways. An important intermediate point during growth occurs about the eighteenth month when children begin to distinguish themselves from others and pass the test of recognition in a mirror (as elephants, dolphins, great apes and some crows do).
Another surprising indication of the slowness of human maturation comes from the comparison of their level of understanding when babies with the intellectual capacity of the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee. A recent investigation by the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has found that these apes, in solving problems that involve objects, have the same basic knowledge as a three-year-old child. “There is more to the world of bonobos than meets the eye”, says Dr. Amanda Seed, a lecturer at University’s School of Psychology & Neuroscience. And less than what we could expect from children, I would add. After the child reaches four, further comparisons make no sense any longer.
Studies of the causes of infantile amnesia are numerous and their conclusions generally rotate around possible underdevelopment in one or more of three faculties: (1) The sense of identity (without a ‘remembering’ self, there are no memories); (2) language skills (without words there are no stories); and (3) various modules of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus or the amygdala (with insufficient ‘computing’ power, the neuronal software cannot run).
The three explanations, that rely on the brain itself or are part of it, are unavoidably interconnected facets of a single theory. Coincidentally, the brain of an adult bonobo and the brain of a newborn baby have equal weight (about 350 grams); the brain of a twelve year boy (when the growth of this organ ends) is four times that size (1.4 kilograms). Something missing or lagging behind inside the skull of infants is what makes us, adults, to forget most of our early years.
Notwithstanding the number and depth of research projects, the causes of childhood amnesia will forever remain with a question mark. Nonexistent things -the yet-to-appear qualities- be them components of the sense of identity, the faculty of speech, or the trillion neurons that have not emerged thus far, leave no trace. Nevertheless, the hypothesis of progressive structuring of the self, from a zero up to a portentous something, in its functional components or as a whole, is a very plausible theory, in spite of the impossibility of its submission to the scientific method … It also has much sense from the viewpoint of memory-competent adult people.
Atlanta, March 27, 2015