Jelly Brain?

Sara investigates why our childhood memories are more than a little fuzzy…

Unlike a computer, our memories don’t always replay our previous experiences exactly how they happened, although we do remember snippets of information and the smells and sensations that accompany them, such as our first nerve-wracking day at school, or the dizziness of our first love. So why can’t we extract certain memoirs from our childhood days?

Our childhood days are when we reach the vital milestones in life, such as learning to recognise familiar faces, and where we learn to walk and talk, but the majority of people can’t recall any memory before the age of 3, and even those memories we can recall are somewhat sketchy. This topic has puzzled psychologists for many decades and the concept of forgetting our baby memories is referred to as ‘childhood amnesia.’

The first study for looking at childhood memories was by French psychologists V and C Henry in 1898, their studies confirmed that the average age for an earliest memory is between age 3 and 3.5. There is no justifiable answer for why some of our memories simply fade away with time, but studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand suggest the problem could be put down to our brain’s anatomy. Two major structures of the brain are responsible for the creation and storage of autobiographical memories: these are the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is where details of information are logged into our long-term memories. A small area of the brain which is referred to as the detale gyrus acts as a bridge to allow messages from surrounding cortices to reach the hippocampus, but this area doesn’t mature until we reach age 5. This is why we can’t consolidate our early memories, resulting in them being lost.

As adults we commonly forget things due to a culmination of stress and living busy lifestyles, but the sense of smell which is even more powerful than vision can unlock forgotten memories. The olfactory bulb is where smells are processed and this is adjacent to the hippocampus which is closely associated with memory and smell respectively. Smell is a unique sense that is nestled deep within the brain, all of our other senses pass through the thalamus before travelling to the rest of the brain.

When we smell something nostalgic the sensation is powerful enough to bring other memories to the forefront of our minds which have been locked away for some time. This action is called ‘Olfactory Evoked Recall.’ We often feel safe when we unlock memories from our past, such as freshly baked cakes that remind us of baking as a child, or the pungent  smell of chlorine which can take us back to our first holiday. This is because these smells are associated with a time when we felt safe from the anxieties that adulthood brings.


Sara Ainsworth


Image by skpy