Cognitive Daily

Why do we forget our childhood?

Today’s research psychologists typically don’t think much of Sigmund Freud. His theories, which tended to be based on literary analysis and interviews with his patients rather than controlled experiments, have been largely discredited (though they continue to be influential in the field of—you guessed it—literary analysis). However, he did discover an important phenomenon which continues to be investigated today. Freud noted that adults do not remember childhood events occurring before they were as old as six. This period of childhood amnesia is now generally believed to end at about age three or four. Though current psychologists don’t put much stock in Freud’s explanation of the phenomenon (he believed the memories were repressed because they are too traumatic), there is still little agreement on what causes it.

Gabrielle Simcock and Harlene Hayne of the University of Otago noticed that the period of amnesia tends to end at about the time of the onset of language, so they devised an experiment to test whether language ability might be at the root of the problem (“Breaking the Barrier? Children Fail to Translate Their Preverbal Memories Into Language,” Psychological Science, 2002).

They created a memorable event for toddlers of ages ranging from two to three: a magical shrinking machine. The experimenter taught the children how to use the large apparatus—a black box with impressive shiny cranks and handles—to “shrink” a set of toys. The toys were placed in a large hole in the top of the box, and after the appropriate sequence of crank-spinning and button-pushing, a smaller replica of the toy appeared in a separate part of the machine. At the same time, the toddlers were given a verbal ability test. And critically, their parents were asked which words from the magical shrinking machine demonstration their children could actually say.

Six months to a year later, the toddlers were revisited and asked about the experience. Most kids, regardless of their age, could say very little about the shrinking machine. However, when they were shown photos of the toys from the experiment along with decoys (for example, four teddy bears, only one of which was used in the game), they accurately identified the toys from the game most of the time. The identical language tests were given to the children at this point, and by this time the children knew nearly all of the words used in the original experiment. Yet none of the children interviewed used any of the words that they did not know at the time of the original demonstration to describe their memory of the event. Though they clearly could remember the experience, and even showed the experimenters how the machine worked, they didn’t use the proper words for the parts of the machine (“handle,” “knob”) if they hadn’t known them at the time of the original event. The memory existed, but the words were not associated with the memory.

Simcock and Hayne argue that these memories simply are not ever encoded in language, and for that reason, never become part of an adult’s autobiographical memory.


  1. memory

    Why do we forget our childhood? .

  2. #2 Mind Hacks
    June 23, 2005

    Cognitive daily on ‘childhood amnesia’

    Cognitive Daily has an elegant summary of research on why we don’t remember the first years of life. The results suggest that it may be because young children lack the language resources to support the necessary memories. I would be tempted to quote s…

  3. #3 Chris Martin
    June 23, 2005

    I found this post through Mind Hacks and thought “Hm, I remember discussing a Freudian explanation for the suppression of childhood memories with Greta and Mauro when I was at Davidson.” And then I looked at the picture on the right and there’s Greta!

  4. #4 DRT
    June 28, 2005

    Remembering Childhood

  5. #5 Maggie's Farm
    June 28, 2005

    The Analyst Speaks: Memory

    Memories of ChildhoodChildren’s memories are�famously unreliable, as are adult’s memories of the past. Memory is distorted in hundreds of ways for hundreds of reasons for which there is no space here. But there is a truly “dark age” of birt…

  6. #6 charles gardner
    June 28, 2005

    We did a post on the subject today – with a little psychoanalytic flavor.

  7. Why do we forget our childhood?

  8. #8 Eli
    June 29, 2005

    For many people, these early memories could be so full of fear and horror that they are blocked. Imagine – being born, being introduced to a new world, scary! Perhaps our memory kicks in once we get the ability to make sense of it all.

  9. […] p://″ rel=”bookmark” title=”Permanent Link: “> Why we forget our childhood “Adults do not remember childhood events occurring before they were as old as s […]

  10. #10 jhn
    June 29, 2005

    If this were true, then adults who for one reason or another have no language would be unable to form memories. But there have been such individuals, and they have been perfectly capable of forming memories. (Pinker’s “Language Insinct” details a few such cases.)

  11. […] ces we’ve been able to share. Here is an interesting theory as to why this happens: Why do we forget our childhood?. The argument is that kids cannot form solid memories because they do not have t […]

  12. #12 samantha
    June 29, 2005

    link update

  13. #13 samantha
    June 29, 2005

    and no–I don’t have photographic memory

  14. #14 samantha
    June 29, 2005

    I have very clear memories of my childhood. I remember my first word, being in a crib, showing off my belly button, drinking from a bottel. I even remember more tramatic memories–what’s the deal with me?

  15. #15 Dave Munger
    June 29, 2005

    “Children don’t remember words they don’t know”

    Not quite. Maybe “Children don’t remember words they didn’t know” would work.

  16. #16 Mr. Nosuch
    June 29, 2005

    Shorter version:

    Children don’t remember words they don’t know.

  17. #17 Dave Munger
    June 29, 2005


    The article isn’t suggesting that the children don’t remember the things—it’s suggesting that they can’t use language to tell us about things that they didn’t have language for. So perhaps the title of the article is a bit misleading. However, since language is the usual way we communicate or memories, I’d suggest that it’s not entirely inappropriate.

    Yes, people who never learn language do have memories, but we’d certainly never expect them to use language to tell us about their memories.


    That’s interesting. It’s difficult to generalize from one person’s case. I have memories of my very young childhood, too, but sometimes I think I might just be remembering photos that I saw later, or perhaps my mom’s stories.

  18. #18 samantha
    June 29, 2005

    Dave: No, seriously–I’ve asked my parents questions about memories and things of my early childhood (18mos and possibly before) and they were astonished because these are very detailed memories–the weather, clothes, conversations, etc.

    I’m not trying to blow your study out of the water I’m just trying to understand how my memories are proccessing.

    Do you think it might be that I was able to understand what was being said at an earlier age at most—or is it possible that children are not as scheduled in development as we would like to think they are?

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    June 29, 2005


    It’s possible that you’re a very special person—what you describe sounds very unusual. Research studies are all about averages, so they don’t really say that one person couldn’t be significantly different from the norm.

    One thing I do know about childhood memories is that children are very bad at remembering the context of memories—whether, for example, the memory is of the actual event or someone reminding them of it later on. The ability to separate context from memory doesn’t fully develop until near adulthood. But you could be different.

  20. […] o we forget our childhood? June 29th, 2005 Why do we forget our childhood? – Because we don’t know the languag […]

  21. […] iled under: Science — Susan A. Kitchens @ 6:58 pm — § | | Why do we forget our childhood?. It’s the language (or lack thereof) baby. [via kottke] As my cousin said […]

  22. #22 Daddy Types
    June 30, 2005

    Why We Don’t Remember Childhood

    A recent study shows that to persist, memories need to be encoded into language. The result: kids aren’t able to remember things that predate their ability to put it into language. Cognitive Daily via kottke…

  23. #23 Personal Blog
    July 1, 2005

    Some more useful links

    Cognitive Daily:

  24. #24 Heather
    July 1, 2005


    I’ve had the exact same experience; you’re not the only one. I’ve described memories to my mother who then verified where and when they happened (which I hadn’t known.) Strangely, my mom also has a few very clear early memories.

    I spend a lot of my “daydreaming” time going over what has recently happened to me and I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. I wonder if having done this as a young child has something to do with my retaining these memories.

  25. #25 Lwaxy
    July 1, 2005

    I remember my childhood, including a pre-bith memory (which is confirmed).

    I think it’s quite a bunch of nonsense about children forgetting. I’ve hardly met anyone in my family/friends circle NOT remembering incidents from very early.

  26. […] re « yay ireland on childhood memory Why do we forget our childhood? This entry was posted on Friday, July 1st […]

  27. #27 A Whole Lotta Nothing
    July 2, 2005

    Childhood memories

    Why do we forget our childhood? is an interesting look at how language helps forge long last memories, or at least, is necessary to retrieval. I’ve heard this hypothesis before from cognitive scientists and I was never fully convinced of…

  28. #28 paurea
    July 3, 2005

    I remember flashes of my childhood. Just like photographs , short videos, and sometime emotions associated. Some of them I have checked with my parents which were very surprised. Something till back when I was 3 years old.

  29. #29 Shropblogs
    July 4, 2005

    Why do we forget our childhood?

    “The period of amnesia tends to end at about the time of the onset of language, so they devised an experiment…” From Cognitive Daily , apparently we can’t remember anything from before 3 or 4 as we lack the language skills to encode the memories.

  30. #30 Walsall Schools
    July 4, 2005

    Why do we forget our childhood?

    “The period of amnesia tends to end at about the time of the onset of language, so they devised an experiment…” From Cognitive Daily , apparently we can’t remember anything from before 3 or 4 as we lack the language skills to encode the memories.

  31. #31 Sophie
    July 7, 2005

    I’ve been thinking about how this relates to Antonio Damasio’s ideas about a ‘primordial’ and pre-verbal sense of self – what he calls ‘core’ self. Damasio’s research suggests that we don’t form our sense of self through verbal language. Instead, the subtle ‘signature which is ours’ is pre-verbal, embodied, intersubjective and affect-based. It only feels continuous through time because it is constantly being renewed for every object (real or imagined) that we encounter. We will store some of these interactions as memories and, later, some of them will be reactivated. In fact, this reactivation of stored objects (memories) in new interactions is what contributes to our growing sense of what Damasio calls an autobiographical self. So, according to this model, our pre-verbal childhood memories are made once and then again remade (and, perhaps changed) at some later point, when we re-activate them and ‘translate’ them into language. Memory is BOTH non-languaged and languaged. I’d be interested in others’ views on this.

  32. […] One hypothesis is that, since we aren’t yet verbal when these early events happen, we have no language to use to “store” the event for later retrieval. Coincidentally, Leah posed a question on this very subject to me just last evening. That is, can Ava really have any thoughts before she can speak? What is a thought unless we have some way to give it meaning, and how do we attach meaning to things other than by using words to describe them? […]

  33. #33 Annamarie
    October 30, 2005

    i cannot remember nearly any of my childhood.. and im only 16. I only remember little details from what my parents or grandparents have talked about, but when i think about it i only remember it in 2nd person. I dont remember actually going through it. i do know a lot more about my parents childhood than my own too.. and i feel like i lived through it. rather odd for me. im confused.. well bye byes

  34. […] Since I have spare time, I’ve been reading Mind Hacks, which features articles about the brain and how it really doesn’t work as well as you think it does in certain instances, like remembering your childhood and grasping the concept of three-dimensional space. I approve. look up in the sky it’s a bird it’s a plane it’s dom @ 1:57 am […]

  35. #35 The Thin Slice--Blog Archive
    April 22, 2006

    — Logos
    DATE: 07/01/2005 02:07:43 PM
    […] nd the English Language, by George Orwell. But I’m posting this because I just found this. Once again, science comes to the rescue and gives us Truth. Note the veiled insult on “literary an […]

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