Making childhood memories last well into adulthood

This month my 3-year-old grandnephew, Wyatt, took his first airplane ride. What’s more, he was chosen to visit with the pilot and co-pilot, and he even got to sit in the cockpit in the pilot’s seat.

My sister sent my mom and me the pictures of the occasion. In addition to remarking how stinking cute her great-grandson is, my mom wondered if he will remember this experience. She hoped so.

It got me to thinking about my earliest memory, which is of my mom and me on the living room couch. She was hugging me. It was more a memory of the senses.

I remember the weight of her arm on my shoulder, the scent of her Tussy deodorant and the smell of coffee on her breath.

It is a snippet of a memory; I don’t remember anything before or after that moment. I figure I was around 3 at the time, but it is difficult to put a date on that memory because, of course, my mother does not recall that specific moment that stands out so strongly to me.

An early shared memory involves my mother and father losing me for a minute while the family was visiting Benson’s Animal Farm. They turned around to see me inside a circle of people feeding a loaf of bread to an elephant. The trainer had picked me out of the crowd to give the elephant a snack, part of a live show at the park.

While we both remember the experience, neither of us can pinpoint how old I was at the time.

I have very few memories from early childhood, which I’ve learned is not uncommon. There’s a name for this condition, “childhood amnesia,” and it occurs because our brain is not formed enough to capture memories and because it needs to make way for new memories.

Early childhood memories vanish as we age.

New research published in the journal Memory notes that, on average, the earliest memories people can recall occurred when they were about 2.5 years old.

Well, that bodes well for Wyatt. At least he has a fighting chance to remember his momentous airplane trip.

But there’s one more item that may boost his recall in his later years, and that is the existence of pictures. According to brain science, taking pictures boosts all visual memories, not only the specific items that were photographed.

Because recall of our early years is so unstable, pictures play a large part in organizing recall and affecting our memory.

Wyatt’s mother keeps photo journals of her son’s experiences. These will hopefully jog his memories in later years.

In this case, Wyatt’s first flight was the gateway to another memory I hope he will be able to maintain.

His airplane trip was to Idaho, to his fraternal grandmother’s home state. His “nana” had lived near him for most of his short life, but now Wyatt and his mother and father were in Idaho to scatter her ashes and celebrate her life.

As older adults live longer, many get to experience the joys of being a grandparent and great-grandparent. I know that Nana Myrn cherished her memories of Wyatt’s first three years.

My hope is that Wyatt will be able to have memories of Nana Myrn, too.


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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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