Why you don’t remember much that happened before you were seven years old

Small children do form memories, but they go through a phenomenon called “childhood amnesia” when they’re older. The reason is a complicated mix of biology, psychology, and culture.

I’m the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.

My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.

My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.

Where do children’s earliest memories go?

My family lived in Brooklyn from when I was 1 or 2 years old until I was eight years old. I have vivid memories of the last two or so years of that time. They were formative years for me. I remember it happily, with friends on the same block within walking distance, and adults looking out for everybody. It was very different from suburban Long Island, where I spent the remainder of my childhood, all my teen years, and the first couple of years of my adulthood.

My brothers, a few years younger than me, don’t remember living in Brooklyn at all.

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