I have what feels like a memory of the first time I met the man who would later marry my mom and, later still, adopt me as his daughter. In the image that sits in my mind, I’m on a swing that he’s pushing gently in the glow of later summer evening sun. I can see the stains of melted ice cream on my face and shirt. I’m pushing my face upward toward the light that’s left in the sky and laughing.
For a long time, I was sure this was a memory. It felt warm and connecting and real. But the reality is that I was too young at the time – less than two – and there’s no way I could have stored this experience. The images that ran through the movie in my mind were ones I’d created later in hearing the story many times over through the years. The images feel like memories because they are – they are memories of the scene I’d developed when told this intimate event in my history.
Sometimes I feel a sense of sorrow that I’ll never be able to truly see back to the day I met my dad. The story will have to sustain me.
Childhood amnesia is the name that scientists have given to the phenomenon of not remembering our very early youth. It makes it sounds like we were knocked in the head or some robot deleted our history, but really it’s just the fact that as humans we can’t recall prior to about age three or four.
It’s a bizarre concept, really, made particularly so by the fact that kids prior to age four obviously do have their own memories. My three-year-old can tell me with much confidence about what happened over the weekend and what her costume was for Halloween. But in a couple years time, those memories will have evaporated.
So how – and why – do we form memories for a while, and then lose them?
And what about when bad things happen? Do we remember those? And if we don’t, can we heal from them?
Despite theories that we can’t remember our own births because the recollection would just be too traumatic, the real reason that we don’t have clear narrative memories of our early years has to do with overload – hippocampal overload, to be specific.
The hippocampus is the part of our brain responsible for moving memories from our short-term recall to our long-term storage. Our brain is constantly assessing the relevance and importance of new memories and deciding whether they meet the threshold to be moved into long-term memory. The limit on short-term memory is about 30 seconds, so if we need to recall that information after that point, it has to be transferred.
We can think about long-term memory like a big room that serves as a storage facility. Our hippocampus is like the curator bringing in boxes of memories from rapidly firing short-term section over to the room. With age and practice, it gets pretty good at bringing in the new material and filing it in a particular box, thereby keeping it organized. But very early on, as a baby and toddler, it’s overwhelmed with the quantity of new things it has to store and it was just throwing things in the room, no organization to be found.
What this means is that the memories are there – technically – but they’re so disorganized and disjointed that they can’t be easily found when we want go get them. Plus, a lot of the boxes got lost in the process of moving them to the room. They slipped out of our curators hands before getting safely there, and those are sadly gone for good.
There is a question that remains, though, and that’s whether to be affected by an event – for it to have lasting impact on us – do we need to be able to recall it? It’s a question that has major implications for not just survivors of early trauma, but also for all of us who have progressed into adults.
If you’ve ever found yourself with an “irrational fear” or a confusingly strong response to certain situations or people, you might suspect that the answer is yes.
The answer does in fact seem to be yes, as we’ve come to understand the way that the physical body holds on to memory, even when the visual mind does not. It’s the way a particular scent moves us even when we can’t place it; it’s the way our body recoils at being touched in certain ways when we don’t understand why.
Those who have done some work on early trauma experiences are likely fairly familiar with this phenomenon and the idea that the “body keeps the score,” and all. We know that the body remembers in a way that our narrative mind cannot.
The body’s memories are a little bit different, though, and that can be confusing and frustrating at times. The body doesn’t have words and labels, for one, and so can’t describe a memory in the way that we are used to doing. The body’s memories are experienced as sensations, emotional responses, and – sometimes – a deep sense of intuition or knowing.
Here’s part of what this ends up meaning: just because we cannot describe in a coherent story a particular feeling or memory doesn’t mean that it’s less real or valid. It simply means that the memory was pre-verbal and is going to have to be experienced and processed as such.
It also means that when our gut is sending us signals to tell us that something isn’t safe or doesn’t feel right, we might not always be able to put words to that. We might struggle to articulate why we feel a particular way because it’s rooted in experiences that existed before we had the skills to do so. I can’t emphasize enough that this doesn’t make them irrelevant. In fact, it might remind us that our intuition or gut feelings (just another way of saying body memories) are critical for getting the full picture.
One of the tasks of therapy for many of us is to help bring a coherent narrative to those pre-verbal experiences. That means that we trust our early experiences and the gut feelings we are having today and we use them to learn more about ourselves rather than dismissing or pushing them away.
The cool thing about memory is that, unlike my own basement storage room, the memory room seems capable of being organized. As more functioning adults, we can use techniques to go back into the room and decide how to label each box. We can group boxes together for easier access. We can discard what we no longer need. And we can take different memories out, look at them knowing they are in the past, and then store them back safely.