Humans have many design glitches (features that Apple would have taken three or four iPhone generations to iron out, but ones that our own evolution seems hellbent on hanging on to). Yes, there are the amusing ones like licking your own elbow, sneezing with your eyes open and tickling yourself (let’s not get started on certain aspects of our anatomy), but these aren’t glitches so much as pointless factoids designed to keep the conversation flowing at desperately dull dates where you know there won’t even be the pretence of “we must do this again”. But one human flaw discussed with a group of mums recently was how bittersweet it is that we don’t form cognitive memories in the first few years of life. Now, we all know mothers have enough to worry about, and I suspect this only added to a list of things we weren’t yet concerned about rather than started what was intended to be a fairly innocuous conversation about how our toddlers will never remember all the wonderful things that they did, or that we did for them. Every experience shapes us, and we know now the importance of love, touch, warmth and nurture right from birth. But it does make me wistful to think my son will never remember the times I sat up all night rocking him, or staring at his little chest rising and falling as he slept, the days we spent hanging out in the park until the swings lost their attraction and we chased dogs instead, his first trip to the beach (actually, that’s a memory best never remembered, as sand may as well have been the devil’s dandruff on that particular trip). Of course, it also means I can lie and tell him we never had any down days, I never once dropped him to crèche in my pyjamas, he never, ever rolled off the bed and I only ever gave him homemade, organic baby meals rather than anything from a jar or frozen. Ahem.
The conversation moved to our own memories, how and why we keep some and forget others, and why some of the strongest ones are often the most banal. Our earliest recollections are usually not the most dramatic – only about a quarter of people have a first memory that involves a trauma. Memories are formed earlier in cultures where a tradition of storytelling is strong, but before the age of 4, most memory is ephemeral. Prospective memory, that is the ability to plan and remember to execute that idea, starts to kick in before age 7. From here until about 10 years of age, children have forgotten about two thirds of their memories before the age of three, but recall of facts improves significantly. In early adolescence, long-term memory improves, as well as the ability to consciously suppress memories. The part of our brain involved in short-term memory continues to develop until our early twenties (so it may not have been solely all the cheap drinks in the student bar to blame for so many of those nights were lost).
Back to the mum-chat about our own babies, and I had a brief, non-scientific, romantic notion that maybe it was also because the love we feel for our children might be overwhelming for them. A tangible memory of it might be too much, could prevent them ever leaving our sides (until they move back at thirty to save for a deposit) or stifle the ability to live an independent life with the palpable memory of a love so strong. Maybe it’s not a glitch after all, maybe the mixed memories of childhood our brain allows us to keep - of happiness and homework, arguments and amusements – are exactly what we need.
But then one of the other mums piped up and added “or maybe no one needs a vivid memory of having their nappy changed on a crowded bus”.
Maybe it’s not a glitch after all.
Originally published in Image Magazine, March 2018