Friday, September 16, 2022

Insight: Accessing the deepest corners of your mind

Ed Pierce's grandparents, Anthony and
Josephine, both died when he was a small 
child in the 1950s. COURTESY PHOTO
By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

If the human mind is this incredible feature that separates mankind from all the other species on Earth, why is it then that few, if any of us, can recall memories from our youngest days?

I have some vague recollections of places and people I visited under the age of 5, but not many. I don’t think a whole lot of other people do either.

The earliest memory I remember is being in the living room with my mother at about age 4 watching afternoon television with her in the late 1950s while she ironed shirts for my father to wear to work. She told me as an adult that I actually learned to tell time by knowing when certain television shows came on.

I do recall watching a program with her as she ironed called “The Buccaneers,” which was a pirate-type adventure show starring British actor Robert Shaw, who later appeared in the film “Jaws” as Quint and then as Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s con victim in “The Sting.” That show was followed at 4 p.m. by an afternoon soap my mother watched every day called “The Edge of Night.” I learned that at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, “The Edge of Night” started and my mother said she would point to the clock’s hour hands and say 4 o’clock.

Those are some of my earliest memories, but where are the rest?

The phenomenon known as “childhood amnesia,” or the inability to recall early childhood memories, has perplexed scientists for more than a century. It seems developmental changes in our basic memory are thought to be as an explanation for our lack of childhood recall, and it’s perhaps the top theory that the scientific community has come up with so far. The development of our memory process spans several brain regions and includes forming, storing and then being able to retrieve the memory.

A brain region called the hippocampus is believed to be responsible for forming memories, and scientists say it continues developing until at least age 7. Decades of testing subjects shows that childhood amnesia shifts as we age, meaning that young children and teens can recall earlier memories than we as adults do but that fades the older that we get. For scientists, this suggests that the problem of recalling early childhood events may have less to do with the formation of memories than with our brain being able to maintain them.

From about the same time that I can remember watching “The Edge of Night” with my mother, roughly 1957 when I was nearing my fourth birthday, I have a faint memory of driving to my grandmother’s home where she was confined to her bed dying of colon cancer. I remember walking up a set of stairs to get to the second floor and then passing through her kitchen to go into her bedroom.

In her kitchen was a shelf where she kept spices and for some reason, I remember seeing a package of Junket rennet tablets for making custard. It’s an odd memory but something I do recall from when I was nearing the age of 4. I also remember my parents sitting me on my grandmother’s bed and her talking to me as they went in the other room with my grandfather to discuss her deteriorating condition.

I’m not sure what exactly my grandmother told me, and try as I might, I can’t remember what her voice sounded like, but I do remember her kind and loving face, her blue eyes, and her softly kissing me on top of my head. If there is a memory that I do wish that I could recall much better, it would certainly be that. My grandmother died on my fourth birthday in December 1957 and although I have some old black and white family photos of her and my grandfather, I would have enjoyed hearing her tell me about her life at some point as I was growing up.

My memory of my grandfather is even fainter. I’m told that to entertain me when I was very small that he once handed me a hammer and some nails and showed me how to hammer the nails into a beautiful oak floor in my grandparents’ home. I have little or no memory of that, but I do remember the shiny and polished oak floor in their living room. I also have some recollection of my grandfather showing me a goose and some chickens in his barn on his farm in Macedon, New York.

Like my grandmother, my grandfather also died on my birthday. He died on my 6th birthday in 1959 and I do remember that day because it was one of the only times in my life that I ever saw my father cry after he received a phone call from his brother informing him about his father’s death.

Life is full of so many happy memories and wonderful events that we all wish we could replay, but we are limited when it comes to most from the earliest part of our existence. But wouldn’t it be great if we could? <

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