What is the most remote memory of your childhood?
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
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).
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.
Author of ´INNER HARMONY through MINDFULNESS MEDITATION´
Atlanta, March 27, 2015