Infant Amnesia: Definition & Causes

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 15 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Have you ever wondered why you can't remember being a baby? Infant amnesia is defined and discussed in this lesson. The lesson presents many theories concerning the cause of infantile amnesia.

Infantile Amnesia

Think back to your earliest memory. When was it? Were you five, learning to ride a bike? Can you go back further? Maybe you can remember your third birthday. You may be able to remember all the way back to your second birthday. Here, you may start getting a bit confused; maybe you are starting to think about whether you are really remembering an event or you are remembering being told about an event.

Amnesia refers to lost memories, and infantile refers to something related to infant age; so infant (or infantile) amnesia is the term used to describe those early years of lost memory. For most people, chronological memory starts between ages two to four. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule on both sides, but the majority of humans have no memory of their early years, with true memories starting from the toddler stage.

Why do we lose our memories of our first years? That has been a question many scientists have tried to answer from many different perspectives. This lesson will review some of the main theories on the phenomenon of infantile amnesia.

Repression

Freud was one of the first scientists to consider infant amnesia. He believed that due to the increased psychosexual aspects of infancy, people repress the memories. Repressed memory is a concept that Freud discussed quite a lot in his theories. He believed that we repressed memories that were too strong for our psychosexual-selves to accept.

Since Freud's work, there has been much research conducted on repressed memory. While there does appear to be some legitimacy to the concept that humans have the ability to block a memory of a particularly traumatic experience in order to protect themselves mentally, there still is little support for the idea that true infantile memories can re-emerge from some locked away place in the human psyche.

Product of Language

Another theory on the reason for infantile amnesia comes from the field of cognitive psychology. This theory postulates that memories are dependent on language. The thought is that since we do not have the language required to describe our memory from early childhood (because we haven't learned language yet), we are not able to hold on to those memories. Thus, memories are only able to be maintained when we have the ability to define them. This is an interesting idea, and seems to have some solid bearing.

Have you ever tried to describe something to someone and the words just wouldn't come to you? Or maybe you thought you knew about something, but when you went to explain it, you realized that you just didn't have the words to describe what you meant?

Language is very important to our ability to describe and define our moments, and thus memories. However, research has shown that some animals show long term memory abilities without any formal language structure. This fact means that there is some doubt that infantile amnesia is definitely related directly to a lack of language skills in infancy.

Age related

Have you ever had the experience of studying for a test and becoming overwhelmed with all the information? You might feel that there is just too much to remember, and as soon as you commit one fact to memory, another falls out. Some researchers believe that our infantile amnesia is similar to this experience.

The idea is that we have so many memories over our life span that it is just logical that our earliest ones will fade and be lost as new ones replace them.

If our ability to remember childhood is a factor of age, then how could any person in their sixties, seventies, or eighties still remember any of their time prior to adulthood?

Biological Basis

All these theories lead us to biological science. Researchers know thata region of the brain known as the hippocampus is responsible for memory (especially memory about our own actions and life experiences) and learning. It is believed that the growth of brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus, called neurogenesis is the reason we are able to remember anything.

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