Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bradbury tales

What is the earliest event in your life that you can remember? Think back. Maybe a wedding you went along with your parents or a vacation. It is unlikely that you were less than three years old then.

Ray Bradbury has claimed in his autobiography that he clearly remembers the day he was born. “"I have what might be called almost total recall back to my birth," he says.”This is a thing I have debated with psychologists and with friends over the years. They say, 'It's impossible.' Yet I remember." Ray had overstayed his time in the womb by a month, and it was his theory that the additional incubation time may have heightened his senses. (source)

A chapter titled ‘Can a person remember being born?”, in “How Stuff works” provides an explanation.

Psychologists refer to the inability of most adults to remember events from early life, including their birth, as childhood amnesia. More than a century later, researchers have yet to pin down a precise explanation for why childhood amnesia occurs.

For a long time, the rationale behind childhood amnesia rested on the assumption that the memory-making parts of babies' brains were undeveloped and that, around age 3, children's memory capabilities rapidly accelerate to adult levels. However, psychologists have discovered that children as young as 3 months old and 6 months old can form long-term memories.

To form memories, humans must create synapses, or connections between brain cells, that encode sensory information from an event into our memory. From there, our brains organize that information into categories and link it to other similar data, which is called consolidation. In order for that memory to last, we must periodically retrieve these memories and retrace those initial synapses, reinforcing those connections.

Now we know that babies have a strong implicit memory and can encode explicit ones as well, which indicates that childhood amnesia may stem from faulty explicit memory retrieval. Unless we're thinking specifically about a past event, it takes some sort of cue to prompt an explicit memory in all age groups [source: Bauer].

What are those cues?

Language skills.

Our earliest memories may remain blocked from our consciousness because we had no language skills at that time. A 2004 study traced the verbal development in 27- and 39-month old boys and girls as a measure of how well they could recall a past event. The researchers found that if the children didn't know the words to describe the event when it happened, they couldn't describe it later after learning the appropriate words [source: Simcock and Hayne].

In addition, we develop knowledge of our personal past when we begin to organize memories into a context. Many preschool-age children can explain the different parts of an event in sequential order, such as what happened when they went to a circus. But it isn't until their fifth year that they can understand the ideas of time and the past and are able to place that trip to the circus on a mental time line.

So, Ray Bradbury may have had a brain structure that was superior to that of all other babies ever born, but he would not have had the language skills, the sense of self, or the awareness of the context, for him to retrieve the moment of his birth from memory.

So, how do you explain his claim then? Simple. He was just pulling a fast one.

4 comments:

Usha said...

Although most of us can't have original memories of our early childhood, sometimes we inherit some memories by repeated recounting of certain events from our early childhood by other adults whom have been around. This sometimes leads to a mistaken belief that we actually have memories of these events.I think...makes any sense?

mekhala said...

Adding on to what Usha says, I think photos of one's childhood muddle up what I actually remember from then and what has been reconstructed from the photos.

Raj said...

Usha, mekhala. Yes, that certainly makes sense. Photos may reinforce dormant but latent memories of events.

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