Earliest memories

While preparing for an upcoming trip to Punjab, I am trying to think if I can remember anything from the two years I spent (age 2-4), in a small town somewhere in the district of Jalandhar. I don’t want to ask my family members as it may ‘force and contaminate’ my brain into a virtual image-a-thon. However, what would be an average age from when a person starts to remember events?

I can barely remember Punjab. Except that there was a magic show on one of our neighbor’s rooftop one evening. I do remember that the magician had taken a jar of wheat and turned it into Parle Gs. I also remember that there were days after that when I had expected my mother to do the same. Although, I can’t remember the disappointment associated with those expectations, because…well I would have known if she was PC Sarkar…by now!

The next I remember, is from a visit to Bhakra Nangal and I do recollect someone from the dam explaining a lot of things to a rapt audience and me being amazed with the power of water that is suddenly released from imprisonment, not to mention a deer trapped in the water, trying hopelessly to maneuver the raging river (it could be my first near death memory!).

According to a research study by a group in Cornell University and Memorial University of Newfoundland, on an average, children can remember events accurately from around 3.5 year of age onwards, however, gradually as they grow older, ‘childhood amnesia’ occurs and the memories become postdated and most, begin to fade out (http://www.ncb i.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24588518). Additionally, ‘childhood amnesia’ seems to occur between 7-8 yrs of age; as published by a group from Emory (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4025992/). Hence after that, most of our memory from the previous years, begin to decay.

What goes wrong between 7-8? Why do we forget substantial amount of childhood events that occurred prior to that? It seems that high neurogenesis or nerve cell generation in the brain during infancy, and in its memory site (hippocampus) causes ‘re-wiring’, due to which there is some decay and loss in being able to remember http://science.sciencemag.org/content/344/6184/598 .

But what about specific memories, like the memory of smell? Olfactory memory is very evolved and has been shown to be necessary for both survival and communication in the animal kingdom. The smells of childhood remain. I do ‘remember’ what my grandmother’s home smelt like, where I lived for a year at age 5. Even today, while going through old yellowed photographs, I can recollect how the house and particularly she smelt. These are pleasant memories, smells of happy association and of a nurturing environment.

We usually remember smells with distinct associations. Similar to the smell of flowers and being able to separate and associate each fragrance with a single type of flower. It was at her house I had smelt Shiuli for the first time, a very sweetly fragrant and pretty white flower. It has remained my most favorite to this day. Scientists have recently presented that an inability to distinguish or identify smell can be an early indicator to decline in memory (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/news_article.php?newsID=2636 ). Hmmm…I wonder why my coffee smells like tea!

Memory is a very complex and intriguing aspect of cognition. It helps us develop our individual and distinct personalities. While I am excited to travel to a place from my childhood, I hope to make new memories this time, and hope too that I will be able to remember every one of them for a few more years to come, at least!

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