Why don’t we remember when we were babies?

Virtually no one retains the memories of their early life, but it’s not because humans are incapable of retaining information at a young age. What science argues is that we may not remember anything from that stage because, at that age, our brains still do not develop a function that groups information into complex neural patterns known as “episodic memory.”

Childhood Memories

The difference between remembering and remembering in detail.

It’s clear that children remember things like who their parents are, or that they should say “please” before asking someone for something. This is known as “semantic memory” and proves that, even when we are very young, we are able to retain information.

However, over a period that extends up to two to four years of age, children do not have “episodic memory” – memory that refers to the details of a specific event.

These memories are established in various areas of the brain surface, or cortex. For example, sound memories are processed by the auditory cortex, on the sides of the brain, while visual memories are managed by the visual cortex, at the back of the head. The brain region known as the hippocampus is responsible for putting all those “bits” of information together.

Blonde Girl

“If you think of the cortex as a bouquet of flowers, you’ll have flowers all over the top of your head. The hippocampus, folded very neatly in the middle of the brain, is responsible for taking all those flowers and tying them together like a bouquet,” explains Patricia Bauer of Emory University in Atlanta. “Memory is the branch – the neural pattern of connections between the parts of the brain where a memory is stored.”

And it’s best not to remember.

So why do children generally fail to record specific episodes until the common age of 2 and 4 years? Perhaps this is because at this stage of the human body’s development, the hippocampus begins to “bind” the pieces of information.

According to psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University in Philadelphia, there may be a reason for this. Episodic memory can be really unnecessary at a time when the child is beginning to learn how the world works.

“I think the main goal of the first two years of life is to acquire semantic knowledge. From that point of view, episodic memory could really turn out to be functioning as a distraction,” Newcombe argues.

Personally, I have “loose” memories of my early life, maybe I was two years old at the time, and they are places in the house where I used to live with my parents. The first vivid memory I have (located in a time and place) is from when I was four years old. And you, are you like the rest or do you remember yourself coming out of your mother’s womb?


Development of episodic and autobiographical memory: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Newcombe, N. S., Lloyd, M. E., & Ratliff, K. R. (2007).

The Bauer Memory Development Lab