Traces of Times Lost

How childhood memories shape us, even after we've forgotten them

Minnikova Mariia / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The slippery baby in the plastic blue tub cringes when her daddy, holding a drippy orange washcloth, leaks a bit of water in her face. He is bathing her for the first time. “Make sure you get the folds in her neck, where milk hides,” I say, video recording the scene on my iPhone. We are new parents delighting in and stumbling through this moment.

The three-year-old girl with pink paint-chipped toenails watches my iPhone video of that day when Daddy bathed her for the first time. She cringes as she sees her smaller self  cringe. My daughter requested this clip out of more than 400, all starring her, most of which she has watched before. We are snuggled up on the sofa. Her eyes fixate on the feet of the squirming infant on screen. She knows she was once that newborn. “Babies don’t get nail polish,” she says, looking down to admire her toddler feet. “I’m a big girl now.”

“Do you remember being a baby?” I ask, knowing it may be a trick question.

“Yes.” She is confident.

I want to peer inside her mind and see for myself what she thinks she remembers.

Many psychologists used to believe that the brains of infants and toddlers were not developed enough to embed salient long-term memories. That notion began to change through the 1980s and 1990s with evidence that even babies could learn and retain information over short stretches of time. Questions remained: What kinds of memories endured? What kinds were lost? How long could these early memories stick around? And when and why did most eventually disappear for good?

Adults can rarely tap into recollections from before two—even memories of something dramatic like a death, a birth, a hospitalization, or a family move. Most memories, if they do survive, come to adults with more clarity if they happened around or after age three-and-a-half. Still, not many that happen between three-and-a-half and puberty survive throughout life. Before we get into middle school most of the evocative impressions we may have held onto from toddlerhood to elementary school have vanished. As teens and adults, we are left with the stories we have heard about being little, along with incomplete fragments of events (if any at all). Only recently have scientists begun to understand the neurological underpinnings of this inevitable loss.

A 2014 study in Science found that throughout infancy, childhood, and into adulthood, new neurons are born within a particular part of the hippocampus involved in memory and forgetting. The researchers asserted that as the brain continues to create these neurons—through a process called neurogenesis—it must clear out older memories to make room.

The period of infancy to early childhood is one of the most crucial stretches of one’s life for forming the self. Brain connections are pruning and taking root. Lasting values are laid down. Foundations of identity are instilled. Language and personality develop at rapid speed. There is something bittersweet about the fact that we cannot access that essential time from when we were small. When I think of my own daughter, it is becoming harder for me to accept all that she will forget.

*  *  *

This week, she declares “fo-fo-felia” her favorite song (“Ophelia,” The Lumineers), and insists on wearing a blue tutu when dancing to it. She calls her dripping after-bath curls “mermaid hair,” grinning with a baby gap in her front teeth. She likes to drink a cold cup of goat milk before bed, and will not sleep without her Doc McStuffins doll. She has named each of her other stuffed animals, listing them off while arranging them in bed: Toodles, Sparkles, Wanda, Tukapua, Tukapia, Layla, Nene, Mrs. Bumpers, and Milky Way Horse Face. Before falling asleep, she wants to hold my hand.

No camera can capture the smell of her at night: watermelon toothpaste and coconut hibiscus shampoo. There is no iPhone camera recording these scenes, just the fragility of a memory that will not last in her mind, at least in any accurate form.

Soon, nights like these won’t be the same. The days of only us are dwindling. Our boys will be here any minute now—my husband and I are expecting identical twins. “My babies,” she calls her brothers with anticipation. She doesn’t understand that they will demand more attention than her parents will know how to give. People will stop and gape at them, and overlook her. I hold onto videos to remind her, and to remind me, that for three whole years, Mommy was all hers. I worry about how her life after the twins will measure up to before. As her memories recede, what will she lose?

Our memory is made of instances we know happened because outside sources told us so (Daddy once gave me a bath in a blue tub), and moments we revisit in our minds, looking out from our own eyes and bodies at an event we experienced in the past (I feel the warm water on my belly. I see the blue tub and Daddy holding the orange cloth. I feel like crying when the water gets on my face). That second kind—the ability to time travel into the past—is known as episodic memory.

Infantile amnesia—adults’ inability to remember, in an episodic way, events from birth to early childhood—has been studied for over a century, and there’s still much that’s unknown. But what’s even more mysterious, and far less examined, is how much kids remember their younger years while they’re still children.

I know my daughter has strong recall for letters, words, names, and songs. These skills fall into the category of semantic (knowing) memory. When I interview her myself (totally unscientifically) I feel like her episodic memory is pretty robust too. Six months ago, someone broke into my locked car while it was parked at her preschool, smashing the window and taking off with my purse, wallet, and phone, which I had left inside in a rush to pick her up. On the ride home, I explained to my daughter what the bad people did. A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, she seemed to have a flashback while riding in my car along the same route we took home after that burglary: “Remember the bad guys? They broke your window? They stealed your bag, and your money, and your phone.” It is obvious why that memory stuck. There was emotion in it, and insecurity in the brief realization that the world is not always a good place.

Sometimes, I am convinced my daughter can visualize herself nursing in my arms, like she did as a baby. From time to time, she curls up against me and tries to mimic the position. I know she also recalls tunes of lullabies I sang putting her to sleep in that first year of her life. But it’s hard to believe she could mentally reconstruct a colorful scene from her infancy, at least without the aid of a video.

According to a 2010 study in Developmental Psychology, 20 percent of children interviewed under age 10 remembered events that occurred (and were verified by parents) before they even turned a year old—in some cases even as early as one month old. These are provocative findings. Yet Katherine Nelson, a developmental psychologist at City University of New York who studied child memory for decades, tells me: “It is still an open question as to whether and when very young children have true episodic memories.” Even if they appear to, she explains, these memories are fragile and susceptible to suggestion.

*  *  *

I could tell you that my first childhood memory is from the day my brother was born, when I was just shy of three. He was so delicate in my mother’s arms, as I leaned over and introduced myself by kissing his forehead. There is a photo from the hospital, so I can surmise what we all looked like at that point in time. This short and sweet narrative has been repeated by my parents so many times that it’s been integrated into my long-term memory. But I don’t really recall any of it. I just know that it happened. I cannot mentally relive it in any honest way.

My first actual episodic childhood memory feels quite different. I can put myself back in that scene, in which I am three years old, floating under water, sinking actually. I am heading toward a vent at the bottom of a pool. I notice my body being pulled toward it. I am not scared of drowning. I have no idea what that even means. Rather, I am filled with wonderment and lightness. Suddenly a woman sweeps me into her arms. She is wearing a swimming cap and goggles. I see my dad in the water, rushing over to us.

“I just turned around or something and all of the sudden you were gone,” my father says, when I ask him about this event 35 years later.

“Was there a lady that picked me up?”

“She just kind of held you,” he says, “or yelled at me or something.”

“Did she have a cap on?”

“That I can’t remember.”

From what my dad tells me, it was 1981. He had taken me on a road trip in his 1965 Mustang from Illinois to New York, while my mother stayed behind with my newborn brother. We were headed to meet his parents, who were flying in from Japan. “I strapped you in the front seat,” he recalls. We rode the whole 13-and-a-half-hour drive that way. After we arrived at the New York hotel, he sat me on the side of the pool and went for a quick swim nearby.

I hold in my memory hundreds of poignant impressions of my father from my childhood—fishing, camping, tumbling, watching him attempt to do the running man at a birthday party. I recall segments of some. I have photos of others. Yet my earliest episodic memory is not his finest parenting moment. Despite this, I know that he cherished me, instilling values that stuck. Thinking about this today makes me reconsider the role that episodic memories in particular play in the foundation of our personalities. Perhaps we have given this kind of recollection power too much credit for its role in shaping our personalities, in making us who we are.

In his book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks quotes Luis Buñuel: “Life without memory is no life at all…our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” This has long been a commonly held belief, also spread by philosopher John Locke, who maintained that memory is self. Some research is now beginning to question this notion.

Not long ago, I interviewed and wrote about the first person ever identified by scientists with a condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory. She has no episodic memories. Yet she maintains a clear personality, sense of humor, set of beliefs, morals, hobbies, and pleasures. She lives a full life.

Last year, researchers from Yale University and the University of Arizona published a study in Psychological Science proclaiming that morality is more central to identity than memory. The authors studied patients with frontotemporal dementia (in which damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex can lead to dishonesty and socially unacceptable behavior), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affects muscle control), and Alzheimer’s disease (which robs a person of memory). The research found that as long as moral capacity is not impaired, the self persists, even when memory is compromised. “These results speak to significant and longstanding questions about the nature of identity, questions that have occupied social scientists, neurologists, philosophers, and novelists alike,” the authors write.

As it turns out, the childhood memories we lose remain with us—albeit in a different form, as the underpinnings of our morality and instincts. This is what attachment theory supposes, says Robyn Fivush, the director of the Family Narratives Lab in the psychology department at Emory University. Infants who receive sensitive and responsive caregiving grow up with a sense of the world as safe, and themselves as lovable and loved. “No one really ‘remembers’ these early experiences,” she says “but they still have long lasting impact.”

*  *  *

After my daughter’s first birthday, I uploaded all of her baby videos to a cloud service called StreamNation, to save space on my phone. A year later, the site sent emails warning customers to store media elsewhere because it was shutting down and uploads would soon be deleted. Those memos got overlooked somewhere in my spam. I didn’t realize all that I had lost until after the site shuttered.

I sent frantic emails to the company. It did not reply. From videos I had texted to my family, I managed to salvage a smattering of clips, like the one with the blue bathtub. The rest from that first year are gone.

Today, we offload our memories to computer clouds, making them more fleeting than ever before as our minds let go and allow technology to do the work of retaining. By focusing on clicking photos or recording videos, we could also be removing ourselves from the episodes we want to preserve, blurring memories of these experiences. According to a study in the journal Psychological Science, this is called “the photo-taking impairment effect.”

But videos can also enhance long-term memories, similar to what happens when family members frequently tell stories to kids, says Jeanne Shinskey, of the Royal Holloway Baby Lab at the University of London. “Enough repetitions could help consolidate the original memory into a stronger trace that’s less vulnerable to forgetting.”

That doesn’t mean the videos help them hold onto an episodic memory of the event—rather, they may create a false memory. Recordings may lead children to recall an event they actually “never remembered, but believe they do,” says Michelle Leichtman, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. “The child may search [his or her] memory for the event representation and find it—but it’s not coming from the original memory trace for the event, it’s coming from exposure to a photograph, video, or story the child has heard about the event.”

Brian Levine, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, believes children do form true episodic memories, but don’t retain them due to neurogenesis. “I don’t think pictures or videos would have any effect on that,” he says. Videos of being very young become part of a person’s semantic knowledge, not episodic, similar to what happens with stories passed down by family. They can include both false and true details.

So even if StreamNation sent back every video of my daughter that I lost, once childhood amnesia becomes permanent, for her, those visceral recollections would still be gone.

*  *  *

On a recent night, I sat at my daughter’s side as she babbled herself to sleep, tucked beneath her comforter, nightlight aglow. Suddenly, I heard her say: “We are all alive. We don’t die right?”

Where did that come from? I thought. “Well, we all die sometime,” I replied, hoping that was not too heavy for her age. “But we like being alive. So we’re going to try to stay alive as long as possible right?”


At any age, it is hard to accept the idea of gone, whether it refers to a life, an instant, a video, or a blip in time when it was just us. Parents often become the bearers of our children’s early lives, filling in the gaps for them, like spouses and friends do for each other. When you lose a loved one, part of your own life story passes away too.

Before our boys enter this world I will try to steal more seconds alone with my daughter, seconds that won’t be recorded. She will forget. Probably, so will I. They will end up somewhere, lodged in our psyches—imprints we no longer see.