Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Early Childhood Memories May Be a “Painful” Figment of Our Imagination

Delving into very early memories of children may be a futile search for things that never existed, but which may present difficulties nevertheless.

Memories, especially those from our childhood and toddler years and even further back, provide fruitful material for adult exploration — at least that’s what we may believe. Suppose those “memories” from the crib or feeding or relationships are fanciful productions, not true ones?

The question carries a cluster of other queries and calls into dispute the entire premise of the validity of children’s memories. The lack of real memories is viewed in several distinct ways; lack of language and a type of amnesia.

Prior to age 8 years… most adults suffer from an amnesic syndrome that has two phases. From the first phase — prior to age 3–4 years — adults have few if any personal or autobiographical memories. From the second phase — between the ages of 4–8 years — adults have a smaller number of autobiographical memories than would be expected based on forgetting alone. In the literature, this two-part phenomenon is known as infantile amnesia or childhood amnesia.”

Suppose an infant’s brain is prone to quickly forgetting and has limited or no ability to formulate long-term memories. Doesn’t this call into contention the validity of childhood memories in adult life? As stated in the literature, “It remains unclear how a brain that rapidly forgets, or is not yet able to form long-term memories, can exert such a long-lasting and important influence.”

How can an imaginary “memory” help evaluate someone’s life and mental situation as an adult, and why would therapists be so willing to accept these memories? Additionally, how would anyone know if these were fanciful memories?

The findings so far indicate that “before 3 years of age that children can mobilize their developing — and still fragile — episodic memory.

Consider fascinating work on children’s memory and a horrific kidnapping incident in California. The 1976 Chowchilla kidnappers hijacked a school bus with 26 children, ages 5–14, and buried it in a quarry, requesting a ransom to release the bus or reveal its hiding place.

The experience was incredibly horrific, but some memories of the event may have been distorted by time, and it is the area of recovered memories to which Dr. Elizabeth Loftus devoted her research.

The children on the bus suffered persistent trauma even four years later and feared being kidnapped, had nightmares, and a fear of death. “A 4-year follow-up study of 25 school-bus kidnapping victims and one child who narrowly missed the experience revealed that every child exhibited posttraumatic effects. Symptom severity was related to the child’s prior vulnerabilities, family pathology, and community bonding. Important new findings included pessimism about the future…”

Can we always relate events truthfully retrieved from memory? Seemingly, we may not know for a variety of reasons. Loftus says the causes may include “some errors can make you feel better about yourself. These are called prestige-enhancing memory distortions.” Others are of the stolen valor cases where someone presents themself as having been involved in brave feats. Prominent politicians have used this method of career enhancement.

The work that Loftus maintains is in repressed memories and primarily sexual abuse. Since we know that pre-verbal children may not have the ability to form valid, long-term memories, her expertise would not be helpful here. But she has been called as an expert witness in famous sex-abuse cases. An interesting video on childhood memory makes several important points.

Caution here. Freud, a neurologist, failed to account for the young brain’s inability to formulate strong, episodic memories in infancy and childhood and erroneously indicated these memories were repressed. How can an infant repress something that could not be encoded in the first place? Yes, we have sense memory, but can we verbalize them and how would that benefit or harm us?

But we also know that we never totally forget anything as shown by research in re-learning. The problem is that this work is based on studies with older children or adults who have gone to school, not infants, toddlers, or younger children. An interesting research area. Anyone interested in a case of an inability to forget is referred to Luria’s book, “The Mind of a Mnemonist…”

Of course, Freud also refuted the idea that female children were being sexually assaulted by their fathers and other men and postulated that women had penis envy. He also diagnosed Little Hans, who had been terrified by a dray horse accident in a park, as suffering from castration anxiety. Unethically, he had the boy’s father initiate psychoanalytic treatment with him with the supervision by Freud.

Freud contended Hans suffered from unconscious conflict and that the horse was an object representing his father. Today, we might call it PTSD. Can you say inadequate history-taking ability?

Memories, real or constructed for a catalog of purposes can lead to serious anxiety, especially if they are reinforced by someone who attempts therapeutic help without adequate information. A degree of forgetting, according to some theorists, is similar to a computer hard drive defragging itself and making room for more memories. It is healthy, not pathological.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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