In the image in this essay, I am holding my middle sister who was born two years and ten months after me.
For three and a half years, it would be just the two of us. I was three years and 10 months old when that family photo was taken.
It had become separated from thousand of other family photos and resurfaced in a box my mother left for me to organize in January when she died.
Nine months before my first sister was born, when I was two, my parents had very briefly separated.
All but four memories from before I was five or six, which is when my second sister came home, faded away because, as researchers have learned, before that age we really haven’t developed the capacity to retain them.
That’s why we are rarely able to recall memories of events before the age of three or four.
The three I can recall are flashes that were later filled in by my parents.
One is from around when that photo was taken at 3 years, 10 months when I recall being thrown over my dad’s shoulder while being carried into the house late one night after returning home from visiting our grandparents.
Another is when I was three and a half being pulled on a makeshift sled behind my parents who were on snowshoeing up to play cards one night with friends.
The third flash I recall from that period is when I was four and riding between my parents early one morning to get my tonsils removed in the new hospital in Ashton, the closest town to our ranch.
A fourth is being pushed to the floor boards of an old jeep I would later inherit as my first vehicle. I was five and the jeep was slowly overturning on the corner leading down to the ranch after my dad failed to negotiate a huge snow berm.
No one was hurt but I remember walking down to the ranch house where my mom was furious with my dad from fear.
I’m not unusual. Researchers call our inability to remember much before we are three or four, “childhood amnesia.” Theorists today believe we can recall information for weeks or months as babies.
But retaining memories involves linking them to verbal cues.
A study published a year ago by researchers at Emory University compared rates of forgetting among children college students and middle-aged adults.
It also replicated earlier research into childhood amnesia.
Results showed that in children the earliest memory tended to be 3.67 years. There was no difference for different age groups or for college students or middle aged adults or even for older adults (ahem!)
One relates is to events that help us feel continuity with who we are or how we’ve changed. Another type serves to guide behavior such as things we want to avoid repeating.
A third type is “social-bonding memories” that involve relationships.
Shellenbarger continues in her review of these studies, “The ability to draw on all three types of memories predicts higher psychological well-being, a greater sense of purpose and more positive relationships.”
They also help shape better “choices in adolescence and adulthood.”
Parents, especially mothers but often fathers can aid these memories when they use a style that includes asking opened-ended questions versus just repetitive reminiscing.
My daughter manifests this elaborative style with my two grandsons. These studies show that this is more worthwhile than just taking millions of photos.