Memory Lane:
Hole in the Mould
31 July 2014

¶ At Aeon, Kristin Ohlson writes beguilingly about memories of childhood — how rare the truly early ones are, and how completely they are overshadowed by those of adolescence and early adulthood. (3 Quarks Daily; via The Morning News)

To form long-term memories, an array of biological and psychological stars must align, and most children lack the machinery for this alignment. The raw material of memory – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of our life experiences – arrive and register across the cerebral cortex, the seat of cognition. For these to become memory, they must undergo bundling in the hippocampus, a brain structure named for its supposed resemblance to a sea horse, located under the cerebral cortex. The hippocampus not only bundles multiple input from our senses together into a single new memory, it also links these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations to similar ones already stored in the brain. But some parts of the hippocampus aren’t fully developed until we’re adolescents, making it hard for a child’s brain to complete this process.

‘So much has to happen biologically to store a memory,’ the psychologist Patricia Bauer of Emory University told me. There’s ‘a race to get it stabilised and consolidated before you forget it. It’s like making Jell-O: you mix the stuff up, you put it in a mould, and you put it in the refrigerator to set, but your mould has a tiny hole in it. You just hope your Jell-O – your memory – gets set before it leaks out through that tiny hole.’

In addition, young children have a tenuous grip on chronology. They are years from mastering clocks and calendars, and thus have a hard time nailing an event to a specific time and place. They also don’t have the vocabulary to describe an event, and without that vocabulary, they can’t create the kind of causal narrative that Peterson found at the root of a solid memory. And they don’t have a greatly elaborated sense of self, which would encourage them to hoard and reconsider chunks of experience as part of a growing life-narrative.