Why Don't We Remember Our Infant and Toddler Days?

Why is it difficult to remember things from before 3-5 years of age?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Paul King, Computational Neuroscientist

Insight into this question may come from the words of Helen Keller, who was a deaf and blind "wild child" until she rediscovered language at the age of 7.

"The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me."

Before language, Keller's life was a blur of experience she likens to being...

"at sea in a dense fog"

After acquiring her first word...

"Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. ... Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me."

One view on early memory is that in order to record an autobiographical narrative of one's life -- "episodic memory" -- one first needs a stable conceptual structure with which to represent the narrative. Language provides such a structure, ready-made, and transmitted from parent to child. However simply observing the world for long enough, especially the organized and intentional world of an adult environment, may be sufficient for forming enough of an internal vocabulary of experience to start categorizing, organizing, and coding the events of daily life.

According to child development psychologist Jean Piaget, it is not until age 1.5 that the child starts to develop mental representation, which includes object permanence (an object continues to exist even when not in view), deferred imitation (copying earlier observed behavior of others), and mental combination (combining ideas into behavior). The ability to perceive the goals and intentions of others comes even later.

These basic building blocks of experience may be a necessary prerequisite for the narrative "plot" of one's life to be represented in autobiographical memory.

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