The Scientific Reasons You Don't Have Any Memories From When You Were A Baby

Babies are some of the most remarkable little creatures you can hope to meet. They are, simultaneously, adorable, hideously poopy, eternally lovable, and exasperating. As we adults teach them about the world, we learn more than we could ever have imagined about ourselves too.

The most incredible thing about babies is just how fast they grow. According to the World Health Organization (via Healthline), the average length of a female baby at birth is 19.25 inches (49.1 centimeters), and 19.75 inches (49.9 centimeters) for male babies. One year later, they've reached an average 29.25 inches (74 centimeters) and 29.75 inches (75.7 centimeters) respectively. That's not even to mention the astonishing transformation they went through from conception to birth.

Babies go through a wild ride after their birth. They have a whole wide world to start to make sense of, from colors, sounds, and tastes, to excitable pets and everything in between. It is, perhaps, the busiest and most baffling time of anyone's life, but the curious thing is that we seem to remember nothing of our time as babies. Here's why.

Semantic and episodic memories

Memories are curious, complex things. We all enter rooms and forget what we went in there for, or confidently go to the grocery store without making a shopping list and fail miserably to pick up everything we were supposed to. In the case of babies, is it that their brains simply haven't developed enough to form memories in the first place? According to Live Science, that's part of the story. Very young children seem to have the capability of semantic memory, but not episodic memory.

The difference between the two, per Psychology Today magazine, is that semantic memory governs "facts, relationships between objects or concepts, and many more abstract details." Episodic memory (per Live Science), as the name implies, relates more to particular events (episodes if you will) in a person's life.

In the study "Development of episodic and autobiographical memory: The importance of remembering forgetting" (via the National Library of Medicine), Patricia J. Bauer writes about autobiographical memory — a deeper kind of episodic memory in which the personal importance of such events can be considered. "Traditional developmental perspectives," she says, "suggest that for the first five to seven years of life, the capacity to create this particular type of episodic memory is either lacking or substantially underdeveloped."

Small children focus on remembering the things that matter

"Development of episodic and autobiographical memory: The importance of remembering forgetting" (via the National Library of Medicine) goes on to tie episodic memory to Sigmund Freud's concept of childhood amnesia and infantile amnesia. These forms of amnesia are defined as "the relative paucity of autobiographical memories for the first three to four years of life, with a gradually increasing number of such memories over the first decade."

The suggestion is that if the brain was largely incapable of formulating these complex memories at the time, it would naturally be unable to remember them later in life — ot even once it's a fully-formed adult brain. Very young children, then, are capable of making the connections that they need to (that bottle means it's lunchtime and I want it right now). It's not until a bit later in life, however, that more complicated episodic memories are mastered.

Live Science reports that Nora Newcombe, a psychologist at Temple University, has a theory as to why these memories aren't being prepared in the hippocampus that early in life. In her opinion, "the primary goal of the first two years is to acquire semantic knowledge and from that point of view, episodic memory might actually be a distraction."