Inside Out: How Memories are Made

When we think back on our childhood, a flood of picture reels can come into our heads. Some are warm and heartfelt, while others we prefer not to recall. All of those experiences shape who we become and, in many aspects, how we parent.

Although memory is an instinctive and complex function that involves various parts of the brain, we’re going to talk about episodic memory; memories that feel like you are reliving it as you recall it.

(Literally) Making Memories

Research shows that most people’s earliest memories go back to roughly 3 ½ years of age. Although recent studies reveal that children’s memories can date back earlier than that, adults rarely can remember childhood experiences before the age of 6. This is called childhood amnesia and it occurs around age 7, due to pruning. Pruning is when the brain does a huge home edit and gets rid of any unused or ineffective brain connections to promote faster and more efficient synaptic networks. Despite the purge, the early memories that do survive tend to have a deep link to the person, for better or worse.

As memories are created, we collect details about the experience. Perhaps it’s the smell of flowers, the feel of the floor, the sight of the wallpaper, or the sound of the TV in the other room. The hippocampus, the structure in the brain responsible for recording the experience through our perspective, will store these sensory images to their associated areas. This is why certain sensory stimuli (smells, sounds, tastes) will give us flashbacks.

When we encode a memory, we also embed our mood and emotional state along with it. When something strongly emotional happens to us, regardless if it’s good or bad, stress chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are released. These make it simpler for such memories to be stored quickly in the brain and why they are easier to recall.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Despite all the good memories we may have growing up, the bad ones sometimes are more top of mind, literally. Studies reveal that we recall bad memories more easily and in greater detail than good ones.

Negative emotions, such as fear or sadness, trigger increased activity in the brain linked to memories, like the amygdala responsible for our arousal state and emotions. These memories are preserved in specific details, but are prone to distortion. An example of this may be getting reprimanded by your parents growing up. In memory, their voices are louder, their words harsher, their movements more aggressive than they probably were in reality. Why do we encode unpleasant memories this way? Researchers believe that conserving these experiences might have evolved as an evolutionary tactic to protect us against future negative or “life-threatening” events.

Do it for the Kids

Why is this all important? One, as parents, we don’t want to intentionally leave emotional scars on our children. Although we may accidentally “nick” them a few times when we are trying to be a disciplinarian, we want to lessen the intensity.

And two, we should be trying to provide them with as many positive memories as possible. It not only gives them a happier, more stable childhood, but they might also carry those memories into how they parent their own kids…and the cycle continues.

Note: Giving them happy memories doesn’t mean turning into a lawnmower parent and shielding your child from negative events. It means helping your child process both the positive and negative in a way that builds them up and helps them cope and learn.

How to Make Positive Memories with Your Kids

  1. Take Photos – Sounds cliché, but seriously, take photos of AND WITH your kids. These are great memory joggers and luckily, we all have handy, dandy smartphones to help. By showing photos and video of past experiences, you and your child can reminisce, further adding context and meaning. For example, my son likes to look at photos and video from our trip to Chattanooga this past year. He asks questions about what things are in the photos, tells me what’s happening in them, and even asks to play them again. Each time we review them, he begins to tell me more about them and adding his emotions (happy, tired, scared) to the images as well.

  2. Mood Matters – Our current mood can evoke similar past memories. When we’re happy, it’s easier to think of good times, and when we’re feeling sad or depressed, we recall the bad ones. For kids, every learning opportunity is new, and every emotion is being coded to that experience. When they’re trying or learning something new, try to make things positive and less scary, like sleeping in their own big kid bed for the first time. Check for monsters under the bed and the closet with a flashlight. Use a baby monitor to talk to them so they know they’re not alone. Provide a shirt with your scent on one of their security stuffed animals. Once their experience of sleep in their bed alone is positive, not only will they be more likely to repeat it, but they will save it as a positive memory of independence that they can refer to later.

  3. Sticks and Stones Break Bones, but Words Hurt like a Mother – Words carry weight, much more than we give them credit for. What may have been a joke or an angry comment from your parents when you were young, may still have effects on your self-confidence and how you view yourself. And yes, we don’t want say things we don’t mean out of anger or try to humiliate our kids, but it happens. To break the cycle for our kids, an apology goes a long way. By acknowledging how your words or actions may have affected them emotionally, you not only teach them that we all make mistakes, but you may also reduce the long-term impact of the event.

  4. Rewrite the Narrative – When we recall a memory, we activate the same network of neurons that fired during the original experience. Once we are finished with the memory, it must be reconsolidated and stored again. However, during the recall, the memory enters a labile state where new information can be stored alongside old information, allowing the memory to be changed or updated. If your child has had a bad experience, like if they were learning to ride a bike, they may relive the moment every time someone suggests they get back on and try to do it again, just like a movie flashback.

    When this is happening, you can add some positive instances to flip the negative memory, like giving words of encouragement, hugs after they fall, or holding their seat while they peddle. Each positive aspect will then embed the old one, eventually diminishing the adverse response to riding a bike and replacing it with a positive memory

  5. Be Present – Some of the best memories come from the most ordinary and basic moments in the day. For me, it was the times when my mom would sing songs while tucking me in, using hand movements to go along with them. I also remember driving with my dad up and down the beach at night because I couldn’t sleep. Find ways to make the most of your time with your kid, like reading them a book or building forts, playing games with them, or simply including them in your daily chores/errands. The smallest thing can make your kid feel special, and give them memories to last a lifetime.

Does this all feel like a lesson from Inside Out? There’s a reason why the movie makes us all pause and reflect. Memories are so powerful and influential, as is how we parent. We hope this little insight into how the brain works gives you a more conscientious approach on making memories with your kids.


Sources:
Scott, N. & Mann, S. (2009). This book has feelings: Adventures in Instinct and Emotion. New York. NY: Quid Publishing.

How the Brain Works: The Facts Visually Explained. (2020). New York, NY: DK Publishing.

Wang, Q., & Peterson, C. (2014). Your earliest memory may be earlier than you think: Prospective studies of children’s dating of earliest childhood memories. Developmental Psychology50, pp. 1680-1686.

Wells, C., Morrison, C. M., & Conway, M. A. (2014). Adult recollections of childhood memories: What details can be recalled? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology67, pp. 1249-1261.

Why don’t We Remember our Early Childhoods? | Psychology Today

Bad Memories Easier to Remember (webmd.com)

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