On the second day of Christmas, we went to Marcin’s aunt’s place for lunch. Lots of meat (lacking in the traditional Christmas Eve meal), lots of staring at babies, and in the interstices, a little bit of conversation. I like his aunt. The most famous story about her is about the time she (as a fiery child), outraged on meeting a flasher on her way home from school, went home for a knife before going back to find him and chasing him down the railway embankment.
In between stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to stop our children from plunging down the stairs, Gosia is talking about memory. She tells us that she has two very early memories. In one, she is lying in a ‘forest’, which she later decides must have been under some beetroot leaves- the sun is shining through and lighting their red veins. In the other, she is riding in a pram with a squeaky wheel. She is leaning out and watching the spokes turn, and trying to put her fingers into them so she can touch the squeak.
It made me think about my first recollections, which appeared somewhat later than hers, at the more normal age of 3 or 4. The very first memory which I can date is the birth of my youngest brother, a couple of months before my 4th birthday. My father woke us up in the middle of the night and made us cocoa, and took us to the hospital where he left us cocooned in blankets in the car while he went inside. I remember him coming back to the car, starting the engine and releasing the handbrake in a decided fashion, and saying, ‘It’s a boy, and his name is Hugh Eric Moore.’
I conduct some informal research at dinner. Marcin remembers sitting on a bald old man’s knee- he thinks it was his grandfather, and he would have been about two. Kaśka is convinced she has no memories, and that what she thinks is a memory is really a story repeated to her by her parents. Marek remembers pissing in his snow suit when he was about 4.
It’s called childhood amnesia. Most children, at some point in their childhood, lose the ability to remember things which happened before they were three or four, and in general have a comparative paucity of memories from the time before they are 7. It’s amazing to me that my nephew, who is almost three and can name all sorts of cars and carry out a normal conversation with all manner of correct declinations, will eventually lose his autobiographical recall of this period. My own children, caught up in their constant power struggle for old bits of cardboard and kitchen receptacles, will retain no trace of the tragedies they suffer.
I feel a mixture of relief (nobody will remember if I shout at them from time to time or let them eat an old piece of orange peel for the sake of two seconds peace) and resentment (what a great big investment of time it all is, and nobody will ever appreciate it). But mainly it makes me marvel at the neural madness of children’s brains. The theory I like the most is that high levels of neurogenesis in the hippocampus in children interfere with the formation of long-term autobiographical memories. It’s only later, when this frenzy subsides a bit, that the neural pathways can be frequented enough to form lasting memories.My own ageing hippocampus interests itself more and more in the past, and I consider it one of the benefits of getting old.