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Childhood Memories: Understanding Our Resiliency

My memory, I am learning more and more, is not typical in that I can remember my childhood like it was last week. I don't have a few #memories, I can remember loads - all my school teachers, walking to school and walking home, bedtime, meals, conversations, and I can see it, often in color. I can remember conversations, line by line, for quite some time and I can see pages in a book or anything I have written down myself. I remember my feelings in various situations and I can even remember as far back as being potty-trained and even a memory or two when I first learned to walk. There isn't really a time in my life when I feel there are less memories as opposed to another, but I have had repeated relationships that were abusive and a few traumatic events that made it necessary for me to remember details. When gaslit for years at a time, decades even, one must remember details to keep them safe, to make clear their own reality.

To remain on the sane side of insanity is often a conscious choice.

My mother had maybe one memory of her childhood. I always thought this so peculiar. Today I recognize her more as someone who has dissociated from their #trauma, their life even, so now this makes more sense to me. My partner however, is the same yet does not in anyway relate to having a traumatic childhood. He was provided for and felt cared for as a child. He has almost no memory of his childhood.

My own childhood was pretty traumatic and more typically we are told this is why our memories are few, our brain's effort to protect us, but I remember it all. I remember facial expressions, tone of voice, lies and deceit, abandonment, every violation. I remember how to move, when to hide, where I would go, who would see me in need and not lend a hand. I really can recall about anytime in my life, essentially any environment, and most everyone I had met. Interestingly this is part of why I am the #scapegoat, because when I speak of my childhood, my family believes I am holding a grudge. They don't remember most of it and don't like the way they are portrayed in these memories, although don't deny it. My memories are my truth and sometimes that does make others in my life look bad.

Psychologists have named what my mother and partner experienced, "childhood amnesia." On average, people's memories stretch no farther back than about age three and a half. Everything prior to that is the dark abyss. When we are young, it seems, we can remember the events of our childhood, but somewhere into adulthood, we tend to lose this and it is thought this is a necessary part of our own development. I suspect I had to remember so I would not seek to continue in relationships that were toxic to me. Gaslighting was such a prominent part of my childhood that I had to remind myself of my reality to maintain some sanity; often I did question if I was crazy.

Sigmund Freud argued in the early 1900s that childhood amnesia was necessary to oppress disturbing memories of sexual awakening. More commonly though, psychologists believe children simply can't form stable memories until at least about six years of age - even though there is little evidence to support this idea. The late 1980s marked the beginning of a reformation in child psychology as memory testing on infants found that children younger than three years do in fact, have some ability to create stable memory. Sometimes this is only for a few days, sometimes months, sometimes even upwards of a year. A landmark study in 1991 found that four-and-a-half year olds could recall detailed memories from 18 months prior, especially when significant emotions are tied to the event, like a Disney World vacation. When these children reached about 6 years though, these earlier memories seemed to fade. Another study in 2005 found that five-and-a-half-year-olds remembered more than 80 percent of experiences they had at age 3, whereas seven-and-a-half-year-olds remembered less than 40 percent.

Some researchers believe that memories endure based on our language acquisition and in relation to our sense of self, which we lack as infants. But although verbal communication and self-awareness undoubtedly strengthen human memories, their absence could not be the whole explanation for childhood amnesia. After all, it is argued, certain animals that have large and complex brains relative to their body size - such as mice and rats - but do not have language, or presumably, our level of self-awareness, also lose the memories they make in infancy.

Interestingly, when I had my sixth child, I was a single mother. My husband was not able to wrap his head around a sixth child, or at least living in a home with more demands on him, so he moved out. He was not involved in her life very much that first year, and as an attachment momma, I wore her all the time. I took my daughter to work with me and she slept snuggled up to me every night. She was early to start talking, as most all my children were, but when she started to say, "I love you," she said it to both her brothers for a long time before she did me. Admittedly, this hurt a smidge, but I started to watch how she reacted to others and even how she looked at us in the mirror, and I began to recognize that she didn't see herself as separate from me. We were the same to her, so it wasn't until she first told me she loved me that I realized she was developing a sense of #Self.

Understanding the Brain

Between birth and our early teens, the brain is still laying down some of its fundamental circuitry and thickening its electrical pathways with fatty tissue to make them more conductive. In a massive surge of growth, the brain sprouts innumerable new bridges between neurons. In fact, we have far more links between brain cells in our earlier years than when we end up as adults, which is why I am always challenging my clients to try new things, gather unique experience, challenge yourself. Dancing for example moves you in new ways and requires that you improve balance and coordination, all of which creates new neural networks. New strategy games, social scenarios, hiking new paths - all create new #synapses and improve the health of your brain.

When we don't use those bridges anymore, our brain prunes itself and those connections are lost. All that excess brain mass is the wet clay from which our genes and experiences sculpt a brain to suit its particularly environment. We call this our #neuroplasticity. Without such limber brains, young children would never be able to learn as quickly as they do but also, this is why we are so resilient. We can create healthier habits after addiction or recover from trauma because we can shape our brains, ultimately sculpting ourselves into better mental and emotional health. We can turn our brain over like a garden, opting for healthier and more beautiful botanicals as opposed to feeding the weeds and thorns.

When we exercise, we promote the growth of new neurons - in the seahorse-shaped hippocampus, a brain region that is essential for memory. But while #neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus likely contributes to the ability to learn and remember, some experts suggest that it might also necessitate a certain amount of forgetting, or pruning. Just as a forest has room for only so many trees, the hippocampus can hold only so many neurons. New brain cells might crowd the territory of other neurons or even replace them altogether, which could in turn break or reconfigure the small circuits that likely store individual memories.

This might explain childhood #amnesia in a sense that our earliest memories are not essential to our Self, nor are my partner's childhood memories because he knows he was safe and provided for so those memories aren't of particular importance today. Mine however, remind me that my trauma is real, that my experience is real, and that those behaviors are toxic and need to be avoided to remain safe. As I continue to implement new and healthier choices in my life, and really settle into my authentic Self, my need to keep all those memories intact will not be as necessary.

Movement & Brain Health

When we exercise and move, we stimulate neurogenesis, we can start to heal our traumas. Those brain cells can be replaced such that when mice are placed in a box that shocks them, they remember longer if they are adults. Baby mice will forget after about 24-hours and even rest and fall asleep in the same box that shocked them. However, if we put the adult mice on the hamster wheel after being shocked, they will more readily forget because new brain cells and synapses are developed. It isn't entirely that these brain cells are replaced, but more so that new brain cells join the network creating new structure. Those previous memories aren't thought to really disappear, but rather, to be minimized and hard to recall. It's more an accessibility issue. We keep near what we need to remain safe.

Prozac does much the same, in that it optimizes neurogenesis, so with new brain growth some of our memories become less stable. When mice are given drugs or genetic engineering, their memories interestingly, become more stable because there is less neurodevelopment. We want to grow and evolve, and part of that means shedding what no longer serves us. Our earlier memories are a blend of genuine recollections, narratives we sponge up from others, and imaginary scenes dreamt up by the subconscious. Like dreams, our memories can merge with pictures and stories and fears, and when we remember events from trauma, our amygdala will assure we remember the greatest treats and less the content. We may also dissociate and tolerate a great deal so our memories are only part of our stories, and are not who we are in themselves. They are ours to observe and to utilize for further growth. As we want to heal these though, and grow into more mature adults, our movement, engaging in yoga or dance or hiking or any other activity you desire, we can better prune our memories and neuro-network to better align with our needs of today.

Parents of little ones who have endured trauma can be reassured that they too are resilient and with activity and active processing of those thoughts, they too can heal. The somatic experience is part of our work. We must move to maintain a healthy brain.

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