Childhood amnesia, storytelling, and the lifelong game of memory

It’s too easy, facile you might say, to open any piece with Joan Didion’s line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And much as I might like the line, the ring of it, the emotive force of it, I realize it cannot serve my purposes here. So, I wish to vary it a little to the following:

We tell ourselves stories in order to remember. We tell ourselves stories because we forget. We tell stories to fight the failures of memory. And when we fail to overcome failure, we tell more stories so that we might at least believe we remember.

I spent last week with a dear friend who is living with a severe memory disorder. As we walked around my small Devon town, she regularly told me she remembered this place or that, often adding a small account of some gathering or event at that location. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that she visited these locations years ago. I believe the events she remembered took place in some form and some (other) place. But the important point is that it made her feel better to tell me them, to insert herself into time and place, and to be seen as my equal in the game of memory we all play with variable accuracy and competence.


We are all vulnerable in that lifelong game of memory, and few rounds are more telling of that fact than the ‘earliest memory’ round. “What is my earliest memory?” we like to ask ourselves. It’s fascinating to see how each of us responds to that question and a source of repeated frustration to bump against an ‘amnesia’ that is written into the human condition from the start.

This is a photo of me as a baby, together with my elder sister and brother. I don’t remember the time of the photograph or any particular event relating to it, but I remember the sofa. More than that, I fix on the sofa — its pattern and texture — as an “earliest memory.” It is as though these left an imprint on my infant mind, settled somewhere behind my eyes and deposited traces on my fingertips so that I might always recall the sight and ‘feel’ of that old 1950s sofa.

There are two things of note here. First, this appears to be a sense memory, one invoking the two specific senses of touch and sight. As such, it has no grammar, no words or narrative other than what I might impose upon it retrospectively. In this, it resembles a dream. Freud remarked that “words are often treated in dreams as things.” Dreams turn our latent thoughts/wishes into images or scenes (the dream’s manifest content) which we, upon waking, try to put back into words. We seek to recover a meaning that the dream has disguised.

Yet in relation to this particular memory, this waking dream, I struggle to find my way back to words or meaning. All I have is a remote, untethered flash of recognition accompanied by affect — a pang of bittersweet longing (nostalgia) brought on by the texture and design of the sofa. Again, we find a parallel in Freud’s conception of dreams. He cites Austrian pathologist Salomon Stricker’s remark that “If I am afraid of robbers in my dreams, the robbers, to be sure, are imaginary, but the fear of them is real.”

To which Freud adds: “the same thing is true if I rejoice in my dream. According to the testimony of our feelings, an affect experienced in a dream is in no way inferior to one of like intensity experienced in waking life, and the dream presses its claim to be accepted as part of our real psychic experiences, by virtue of its affective rather than its ideational content.”

So far, so good. I can perhaps stake some claim to the sofa as my earliest memory, even if I can derive no description of a past self or event from it. Even if I cannot find anything more than the immediate affect it rouses, even if I experience no Proustian passage from involuntary to autobiographical memory, for, and here I borrow far too cheekily from Mr. Freud, “the affect is always in the right.”

But — and here is the second thing of note about this memory — my so-far-so-good was as fleeting as memory itself. Because as tightly as I might cling to my memory of the sofa, my more cautious self must admit that it did not occur to me as a ‘first memory’ until I found the photograph. My finding of the photograph happened in 2003, after my mother died, in the course of going through her belongings.

Did the finding of the photo trigger a ‘real’ first memory or did it simply allow me to create a metanarrative along the lines of: I have a first memory and here it is? I have found my first memory. Life was so empty without it! In other words, the finding of the photograph allowed me to tell myself a story of remembering. In fact, a story more about memory itself than about the sofa. We tell ourselves stories to remember. To find the “affect that is always in the right.”

Here, Freud would surely draw my attention away from my ‘dreamlike’ descent into nostalgia to remind me of what he called “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory for the first years of our lives,” that “turns everyone’s childhood into something like a prehistoric epoch.”

Freud would relate this failure to repression occurring during the child’s psychosexual development. Of course, the concept has been much researched and re-worked since Freud so that now, under the term “childhood amnesia,” it is viewed as a cognitive phenomenon best understood as having to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories. What we now know is that childhood amnesia emerges around the age of seven. Up to then, children are remarkably good at remembering earlier events:

“Although adults exhibit limited abilities to retrieve memories from their early childhood, young children, including toddlers, are capable of recalling information about their past experiences following delays of days, months, and even years. Yet many of the early memories become inaccessible or “forgotten” as children grow older such that by late adolescence, children exhibit childhood amnesia to a similar extent or magnitude as adults do. (Qi Wang & Sami Gulgoz, “New Perspectives on Childhood Memory,” Memory (Journal), 2019)

There is now widespread agreement that the emergence of childhood amnesia can be explained by early brain development. Although two-year olds are able to answer basic questions about recent events, they tend to need prompting or cue words to do so. For the next few years, they grow more proficient at recalling and describing life events. But as this skill progresses — i.e. as they learn to narrate their past, to develop a sense of autobiographical memory — that progress coincides (from about the age of seven) with a forgetting of those early events that occurred before the brain had achieved that narrative capability. This is why most researchers agree that our earliest memories usually date from age three or four.

Here we have one of life’s bittersweet ironies, almost another reworking of Didion’s statement insofar as our growing ability to tell ourselves stories coincides with the ‘loss’ of three or four years of memory. Indeed, psychologist Romeo Vitelli notes that, “Since narrative retelling allows us to “rehearse” important memories and retain them longer, memories that are not rehearsed become inaccessible over time and can be quickly forgotten as a result.” (Vitelli, “Exploring Childhood Amnesia” Psychology Today, 2014)

Vitelli cites further research showing that the rate of forgetting is most accelerated during the period in which childhood amnesia emerges, i.e. around the age of seven, when “children rapidly forgot memories of early childhood, but that forgetting slows as children grow older. This suggests that the number of available memories relating to early childhood shrinks rapidly in children. For adults, however, memory is less vulnerable to forgetting due to better memory consolidation.”

Memory consolidation refers to the gradual development and rehearsal of autobiographical memory, the ability to narrate our past and repeat those narrations over the years. And here, it’s important to recall that we constantly revise our memories. No one made this point more eloquently than Freud in his essay on screen memories:

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” (Freud, Screen Memories, 1899)

The reader will forgive me for returning to this passage often in my posts about memory, but it is our best reminder that memory is a form of representation as much as it is a cognitive process. This passage, we might say, is where Didion and all auto-biographers/memoirists/artists before and after her come to meet the psychologists and neuroscientists. As beings who remember and forget and remember and forget with varying degrees of accuracy (cognition), we all must have recourse to the narrative devices of storytelling (representation).

Moreover, all storytellers benefit from cues, props, stories told by others. And so, what happens to our seven-plus aged selves as we begin to develop autobiographical memory? We begin to gather our personal archive. We gain photographs, mementoes, household objects, family heirlooms, personal possessions. My father clung to his high school basketball trophy, won only a year before he went to war, for his entire life and I now keep it in my possession; I held onto my first pair of ice skates until a transatlantic move pressed me to give it up.

And of course, we gain the narratives of others, initially our parents (or what some researchers like to call the “maternal narrative style” …hmmm), then as our world widens, of extended family, friends and colleagues. Here, it is worth noting that those early (and even later) childhood memories we believe we remember often derive from memories handed to us from our parents or other close family members. For example, I have a deep fear of swimming too far out (losing my footing) in any lake, ocean, or pool. I am certain this fear comes from a memory of a near-drowning incident that occurred when I was four or five. But rather like the nostalgia I experience upon seeing the old sofa, the only real memory (or perhaps more accurately, a triggered return) is of an affect: fear.

I have no memory of the incident itself, but I regularly catch myself believing that I do. This is because the near-drowning incident entered the family annals, became a family story, an explanation even, of a child who exhibited terror at the thought of swimming in a lake. Soon, this ‘memory’ was little more than what various people said happened. And it was constantly revised as it passed from one person to another, one year to another. Sometimes, I was told it happened when I was four. Sometimes, I was five. Sometimes they said, “now what year was that?” As if the event, unlike my fear, was receding in importance. As if they were trying to trick me into forgetting it. Into forgetting what I could not remember. But to borrow from Freud again, the affect had the ‘last word’. The affect that is “always in the right,” however degraded the memory itself.

I have written this following a week during which I witnessed the courage of my friend as she grapples, from minute to minute now, with the decay of memory. And there is something in this universal story of childhood amnesia that levels us. Brings us closer, provides a glimpse of shared experience. I know that soon she will forget our week together, if she has not done so already. I, with all the failings and fictions of human memory all too evident to me, must remember for both of us.

Originally published at on September 4, 2020.