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Scientists have revealed a possible explanation for why we are largely unable to remember anything clear from our very earliest years.
The study was done using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and found that one area of the brain, the hippocampus, was focussed on noticing patterns so that the infant could understand more about their surroundings.
This is crucial to predicting an environment, which is a foundation for surviving, and happens even though the brain is not capable of storing specific details at this stage.
Nick Turk-Browne, a professor of psychology at Yale, a senior author on the paper, said: “A fundamental mystery about human nature is that we remember almost nothing from birth through early childhood, yet we learn so much critical information during that time – our first language, how to walk, objects and foods, and social bonds.”
He highlighted how the hippocampus, which is in a part of the brain responsible for memory, is not able to create specific memories when we are first born.
However, it doubles in size over the first two years of life, which eventually allows it to build enough connections to create episodic memories, which many of us might think of as our "earliest" memory.
"As these circuit changes occur, we eventually obtain the ability to store memories,” said Turk-Browne.
“But our research shows that even if we can't remember infant experiences later on in life, they are being recorded nevertheless in a way that allows us to learn from them."
The strategy for creating more "general" memories is important, because it allowed us to learn important skills that form foundational skills for life, such as walking and understanding language.
We do have "memories" from this period, but they're things that we take for granted and use every day instead of more specific episodic memories, the study argues.
The episodic memories, which are based in more specific experiences, are also the sort of memory that is lost in adult amnesia.
The team at Yale used MRI technology to study the brains of 17 babies aged three months to two years old.
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In the experiment, the infants were presented with two sets of images, one in a random order, and one containing structured sequences and hidden patterns that could be learned.
The imaging showed that the hippocampus responded more to the images which presented the opportunity to learn patterns.
The findings were publish on May 21 in the journal Current Biology.
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