When Do Memories Start to Form?

Our memories are what make us human. If we had no memory, each moment would be an isolated event with no meaning, moving to the next moment with no appreciation for what happened in the previous moment or moments of our life.

Our amazing memories and how they work

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Our memories can be conscious, meaning, we think about something and recall it in a kind of logical way. These kind of memories are called explicit memories. Our memories also can be stored in unconscious regions of our brain so we remember things based on sensory experiences: the touches, smells, tastes, sights, and sounds we experience throughout our lives.

Our memories, especially our sensory memories, are associated with a variety of feelings, such as love, pleasure, disgust, fear, frustration, sadness, pride and shame, just to name a few.

When are the earliest memories formed?

The answer is pretty amazing.

There are two structures in the human brain called the amygdala (which means “almond shaped”) that are a special kind of memory bank. The amygdala is located in the brain on either side of the head at about the level of the ear. It has the job of guarding the rest of the brain and body.

From very early on, the amygdala takes in the world in a sensory way and creates memories about those times when there appears to be some kind of danger or stress.

When it detects (or when something triggers) a memory of a previous time when something was painful or dangerous, it sends out powerful signals to the rest of the brain to release brain hormones, called neurochemicals or neurotransmitters. These include powerful substances like cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine that prepare the body for fight, flight or freezing. (See reference below.)

What is amazing is that the amygdala is operating before a baby is born!

In fact, neuroscientists report that in the last trimester of pregnancy, the amygdala is busily gathering sensory information about how safe and predictable the world is. The baby is able to taste amniotic fluid, feel the sensations of the water around it, and hear the muffled sounds of its mother’s heartbeat. All of these create memories.

It also experiences the gentle rocking sensations as its mother moves around, something that stops when she lays down. How many mothers report how active babies get when they aren’t being gently rocked through her movements? It’s so much easier to sleep when you’re being rocked!

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This is why newborn babies crave the gentle rocking movements that remind them of being rocked in the womb, and why they love to be patted in a rhythmic way that mimics the pattern of their mother’s heartbeat.

The earliest memories for any of us are those of being in our mother’s womb. The newly forming brain is already highly sophisticated, at least in its lower, most primitive areas.

Mothers and fathers can help create an intrauterine environment during pregnancy that allows a baby’s amygdala to create memories that are about peace, safety and love as opposed to fear and stress by being aware that their baby needs a safe and loving environment even before it comes into the world.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Did you know that memories are being formed even before the baby is born? Why might this be important for parents to appreciate?
  2. What are some specific ways you can nurture your unborn children or support others you know who are pregnant?
  3. Does this information help you understand why it is so comforting to newborns to be rhythmically rocked and gently patted?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Reference: Information on the amygdala from The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy by Louis Cozolino


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