Ask Giz: Can You Remember Being a Baby?

Ask Giz: Can You Remember Being a Baby?

Every life stage has its share of novelty – first kiss, first tax return, first twinge of certain death – but when it comes to new experiences most of us peak in infancy. Just laying there, gargling and soiling our nappies, we as infants cycle through thousands of firsts. But can you remember being a baby?

It would be nice to remember some of our first memories, as our lives slow down, as we settle into the same office chair for the 200th time, and sip from the same novelty coffee mug. But remembering being a baby isn’t something that most people can remember.

Still, plenty of people claim to remember being born, and not all of them have done ayahuasca. Are these people all misguided, and/or liars? Is it possible to remember what life was like at, say, six months old?

As it turns out, science still hasn’t landed on why, exactly, we forget virtually all of our first few years alive – but there are plenty of compelling theories out there. So, here are some scientific opinions on why we can or can’t remember being a baby.

Lorraine E. Bahrick

Professor, Department of Psychology, Florida International University

Few adults actually remember being a baby. Scientists call this “infantile amnesia”. This refers to the fact that adults report very few memories from earlier than age three or four years.

But research shows that infants themselves have excellent memories – they can recognise the faces, voices and actions of people around them; learn names for things; and delight in special objects, familiar routines and places. A study we conducted in my lab found that three-month-old infants could recognise the movement (swinging versus circling) of an object they had seen for just two minutes, three months later – at the age of six months!

Another reason one might expect to remember infancy is that the first years of our lives are known to have lasting effects across the lifespan. They lay the foundation for our social, emotional, perceptual and cognitive development. For example, the words we learn in infancy are retained through practise across the lifespan, as are common routines such as holding a fork, drinking from a cup, and putting on a shoe.

According to some experts the first years mould our personality and determine the nature of our attachments to others – shaped by how securely attached we are to our primary caretakers as infants.

So, although we may not explicitly remember being an infant, the experiences of infancy are not lost – they are systematically built upon across time. Scientists have proposed a number of reasons for infantile amnesia (for example, a shift from visual to verbal encoding of memories, or organising memories around the developing sense of self) but there is no agreed upon explanation.

This being said, there are large individual differences in how much we remember from infancy and early childhood. Some of us, including myself, report having clear memories from age two and earlier, while others report having virtually no memories until ages seven, eight or nine.

For those who wish to enhance their memory of being an infant, there are techniques that can be used. Imagine yourself in the context of the home you lived in as an infant. Reconstruct the space: Imagine the colours, smells and tastes. Imagine the sounds and sights of familiar people and their voices. Try to invoke all the senses.

Imagine experiencing life from the perspective of a small child, crawling or being carried or held. Focus on whatever feels familiar and go deeper (the smell of baby powder, taste of milk, the feel of being strolled, the sound of the lullaby). Most people can recover some specific memories in this way.

Claudia Gold, MD

Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist, Austen Riggs Center, Faculty, University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Program, and author of The Developmental Science of Early Childhood: Clinical Applications of Infant Mental Health Concepts From Infancy Through Adolescence (2017), among other books

Babies don’t have language, or conscious thought, so memories of their experiences are different from what we conventionally think of as “memories”. Whatever they “remember” is in their body, not encoded in language.

From the moment you’re born you begin to make sense of what’s going in the world, through interacting with the people who take care of you: The way you’re held, the way you’re changed, the way people speak to you.

That experience informs the way you are in the world, in your body. It informs the development of your brain and your gut and your whole autonomic nervous system ” all those things develop through interactions with the people who care for you when you’re a baby, and all of that becomes literally part of your body, not just your brain.

For example, if you have a very nurturing relationship, it signals your genes to make a certain amount of protein that determines your stress response. It also determines how different parts of your brain grow, through a process called epigenetics. The way your genes are turned on is influenced by the way you’re cared for in the earliest weeks and months of life.

Let’s say you go someplace you have no conscious memory of going to before, but you have a physical reaction to it. It reminds you of something that’s not in your conscious memory – it’s in your bodily memory. You have this sort of physical reaction to it even though your conscious memory tells you, “Oh, this place is fine, there’s nothing dangerous about this.” Your body can have a different reaction based on earlier experiences.

Charles Nelson, PhD

Professor, Paediatrics and Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School

I’d like to slightly reframe this question as: “How much do we remember from the first years of life?”

This is an age-old debate, typically conceptualised as “infantile amnesia”. The big question has been the paradox that 40+ years of research has demonstrated some remarkable feats of memory that are possible in the first months and years of life, and yet generally, we remember nothing of our lives before the age of two (the average is actually four years). Why is this?

Several reasons have been proposed. Freud claimed that through we repress these early memories, they are indeed retained – we just don’t have access to them (there is zero evidence for this). Others have suggested that without a language system in place, we don’t know how to represent these memories, and thus cannot organise and retrieve them.

There is also the brain theory: although the neural systems involved in forming a memory come online fairly early in life, the systems for storing these memories for the long-term are immature in those early years; as a result, encoding something as a memory is not translated into long term storage

A related theme is that the actual systems of the brain that are involved in retrieval – most of which are in the prefrontal cortex – are immature in those early years.

Do you remember being a baby?

That’s about it for this Ask Giz. Be sure to check in for our next one.

Ask Giz is a fortnightly series where we answer your questions, be it tech, science, gadget, health or gaming related. This is a reader-involved series where we rely on Gizmodo Australia’s audience to submit questions. If you have a question for Giz, you can submit it here. Or check out the answer to our last Ask Giz: What is the Metaverse?

This article has been updated since it was originally published.

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