If you are not aware, I am adopted. I was abandoned a few days after I was born in a hospital, given to an orphanage by hospital staff, and then adopted before my first birthday. They say the first two years of an infant’s life is critical for establishing a healthy and psychologically comfortable child and it goes well into adulthood. About 40% of my life (up until the age of two) I had no regular caregiver. I believe that has negatively affected my life. Many studies are starting to come out that say that adopted children are much more likely to have mental health struggles later in life (alcoholism, substance abuse, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation or intention, etc.). Many professionals in the field theorize it is because the child is traumatized when separated from their biological mother early in life.
I have always known I was adopted. As such, I was always interested in reading and learing more about how being adopted affects a person on the psychological level (as well as potentially the physical abnormalities that appear in the brain because of the trauma of being separated from the biological family). One thing I have always been curious about is memories.
Many educational articles and books describe that memories begin to fade of early infancy and being a toddler around ages 3–6. However, the way these articles, magazines, and books are worded make it sound like these memories are “forever lost”. This is, at least how I feel, a big misconception.
People know that sensation of say smelling something or tasting food and it suddenly brings back some kind of flashback. What I have been curious about is how infants and toddlers store these types of sensory memories. Also, how far back do these sensory memories become stored in some shape or form (conscious or subconscious)?
One very interesting incident I can say from my own experience: when my niece was no older than two or three years old, she had a horrible incident of food poisoning. I remember washing her in the tub and rubbing her back, trying to use my voice to comfort her and at least calm her down. The next day she had to go back home. I didn’t see her again for another few years and she absolutely loves me. She never video chatted with me or visibly saw me between those years (her mother would talk about me and say my name, but there was no visual stimuli to have her mind remember me in those years I was physically absent in her life). My hunch is that something in her memory recalled such a distressing time for her (both physically from the food poisoning and psychologically from me trying to soothe her) and she essientially imprinted positive thoughts and feelings associated with me. Does she recall that memory in her conscious mind? Not from what I can tell, but the psychological experience definetly left a lasting impression on her.
I theorize that we store more in our subconscious than scientists are willing to hypothesize about. This is espicially true for children (regardless if they were adopted, fostered, or similar circumstances) who are infants and toddlers with memories focused around the sensory perception of objects (the feeling of a blanket they slept with in a crib or say the smell of a their birth mother).
Do these memories fade to nothing in our conscious mind? Absolutely, I am not debating that. However, I strongly feel that we store numerous sensory based memories in our subconscious that we do not realize we retained unti say we dream about it or come across another familiar sensory input (smell, taste, hearing, etc.). These educational tools and resources need to stop so recklessly stating (essientially) that “all hope is lost to recall memories from birth to age three or six”.