Can you remember being born?


Announcer

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Male Speaker

You've heard the rumors before. Perhaps some whispers written between the lines of the textbooks. Conspiracies, paranormal events! All those things that disappear from the official explanations. Tune in and learn more of the stuff they don't want you to know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark

Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me, as always, is the lovely and esteemed Charles W. Chuckers Bryant.

Chuck Bryant

How you doing, buddy?

Josh Clark

I'm all right. How are you?

Chuck Bryant

Slightly under the weather, I see.

Josh Clark

Tad.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, everyone is sending out their well wishes.

Josh Clark

Thanks.

Chuck Bryant

You'll be well by the time this comes out.

Josh Clark

Probably, but it'll still warm my heart to see well wishes. Chuck, I don't know if you got the e-mail, but we've been asked to mention a couple of shows that are coming out, companion shows that are coming out on The Science Channel. The Road to Punkin Chunkin and Punkin Chunkin itself!

Chuck Bryant

Naturally.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, and that Josh, is Thanksgiving night. If you're bored after your turkey on the Science Channel -

Josh Clark

Starting at 8:00 Eastern Time. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. So can we get back to it?

Josh Clark

Yeah, let's do it.

Chuck Bryant

Great.

Josh Clark

Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

Josh.

Josh Clark

Do you remember coming into that delivery room from the womb with your mom going, "Ehhh," and you all wet and nasty and cold all of a sudden, and everything is bright, and there are people spanking you, and you're suddenly a little perturbed? I remember being perturbed.

Chuck Bryant

That sounds like last Friday night for me.

Josh Clark

No, I'm not talking about any goats being around, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. No, I don't remember that.

Josh Clark

Nor do I. I'm totally cool with it. And apparently, no one remembers this. Being born is impossible, as far as we know.

Chuck Bryant

As far as we know.

Josh Clark

Yeah. So any time you hear somebody describing how they remember being born, you can punch them in the stomach and call them a liar.

Chuck Bryant

Do people say that?

Josh Clark

I've heard it before. It's rare, but yeah, people do say that they have uncovered that memory.

Chuck Bryant

Right. What, through primal therapy, or - are we getting there?

Josh Clark

You got a little foreshadowing binge going on?

Chuck Bryant

I know, that's literally like the last thing we're probably going to cover, and I ruined it.

Josh Clark

Well, let's talk about this, Chuck. Why can't you remember being born? Especially because there - they think that infants are able to form memories. So why wouldn't we be able to be formed? And what's going on here? Like that's weird that our brains wouldn't start forming memories until a certain age.

Chuck Bryant

Sure, after we're born, right.

Josh Clark

What's up with that? Why don't we remember being in the womb or sitting on a cloud, waiting to come down into your mom's tummy, or being like a Les Ocean gunman or something before you got to the cloud. That kind of thing! Why don't we remember any of that?

Chuck Bryant

Well, we can get to that in one second, but we should go ahead and just say historically that for many, many, many, like 100 years, they thought that we just simply - our little baby brains weren't formed enough to be able to make these memories happen. But that's not true.

Josh Clark

That's a legitimate theory. Right?

Chuck Bryant

I don't think they looked into it that much, though.

Josh Clark

But I mean we develop at a certain pace. Like we don't even have kneecaps for the first several - what, months? Two years, maybe!

Chuck Bryant

Oh, really?

Josh Clark

Yeah, you don't have kneecaps, pal.

Chuck Bryant

I don't think I knew that.

Josh Clark

That's why baby legs are so weird looking. You just want to chew on them.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

But yeah, so we develop - like we don't come out of the womb fully grown. So it's not the most bonehead - it's not spontaneous regeneration bad theory.

Chuck Bryant

No, but they didn't - for about 100 years, they didn't even look into it much, I don't think, and then for the past 20 years, they've started to.

Josh Clark

Well, hold on. What is it called?

Chuck Bryant

Are you talking about childhood amnesia?

Josh Clark

I am, previously known as infantile amnesia.

Chuck Bryant

By your favorite, Mr. Sigmund Freud.

Josh Clark

Oh, and guess what. What a surprise. He said that it had to do with repressed sexual urges. Holy cow, I can't believe it. Freud equated something with sex. Everything, sex, sex, sex, it's crazy.

Chuck Bryant

Sure. He said that what we did was we repressed our memories of traumatic often sexual urgings, and formed screen memories to block the unconscious id.

Josh Clark

Right, and by screen memories, no memories is another way to put that. Because most people apparently can't come up with a concrete memory from their childhood until they turned about Age 3. That's when you - that's as far back as most people can remember, I think.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I can remember back that far. My first memory was in my first house that we moved from when I was three, and I remember very specifically a couple of things. I remember my mom wrapping her wedding ring on the back window when it was time to come in and eat. And I remember right before we moved out, we were eating on the floor. All the furniture was gone, and the next door neighbor, Billy Bright, came up to our screen door and like stood in the doorway and just watched us eat. I remember that. And I was three. What about you?

Josh Clark

My earliest memory - I must have been pretty young because I was still wearing diapers.

Chuck Bryant

I was 17.

Josh Clark

I was younger than seven, and I was banging goodbye on a storm window, storm door, and my older sister Karen was babysitting me, and my mom was leaving. That's how I used to say goodbye, so I couldn't talk. So I was definitely younger than six. And I was banging on the storm window and put my arm right through it. And I remember the scene. But that's my earliest memory.

Chuck Bryant

Well, no wonder you remember that. Were you cut and wounded?

Josh Clark

I was. I don't remember pain or anything like that, but I was definitely bleeding everywhere. I remember my sister Karen just screaming blood murder. She was so freaked out.

Chuck Bryant

I love that you were mannish enough at that age to put your arm through a storm window.

Josh Clark

Yeah, I was like, "It's nothing. Don't worry about it, Karen."

Chuck Bryant

It's not a Josh door.

Josh Clark

Yeah, right, and then I went and started a fire.

Chuck Bryant

Wow, good for you.

Josh Clark

So that's my earliest memory, but again, it's sporadic. I can't tell you what age it took place at.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, well, me either, aside from knowing that I lived in that house and moved at three.

Josh Clark

One of the things that I recognize that as a very concrete memory, though, is that there's no photos of it. Apparently, if you look through family photos, it's very easy to generate false memories.

Chuck Bryant

That makes sense.

Josh Clark

Or obviously, you can support the memories that you do have as vague as they are by looking at family photos, but these serve as cues. There were no photos of this one. And I was wearing diapers. So to me, this constitutes my earliest memory.

Chuck Bryant

We'll get to the cues as well in a minute. But what they did figure out in the past 20 years from doing a lot of studying is they determine that children as young as three months old can actually form memories. It's just the fact that these memories don't stick around as long-term.

Josh Clark

Right, and even more than that, they've also determined that we're born with the ability to form unconscious memories.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, talk about that. It's pretty cool.

Josh Clark

Okay, so basically, we have two kinds of memory. We have explicit memory. Do you remember when we talked about dogs perceiving time?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

We touched on this then, too. We talked about explicit memory or semantic - no, I'm sorry. We talked about explicit memory, right, or episodic memory is the name of it.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And then there's the other kind, the unconscious memory, which are referred to as semantic. So you remember when I asked you in how do dogs perceive time, what you had for breakfast?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And you were describing it in detail, which lent itself to - it was evidential that that was an episodic memory. You clearly had memories.

Chuck Bryant

Right, I recall senses and things like that.

Josh Clark

With a semantic memory, that's where you learn how to play a piano, and you might not remember learning to play the piano, but you can remember how to play the piano because you learned it - you're accessing a different kind of memory.

Chuck Bryant

And oddly enough, if you lose your memory in an accident or something and have amnesia, you may be able to still remember how to play the piano.

Josh Clark

I find this stuff absolutely fascinating.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, me, too.

Josh Clark

Okay, so for unconscious memory, we're born with that. But it does take several months if not years to start to develop episodic memory. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So how does episodic memory work?

Chuck Bryant

Well, is that - are you talking about encoding?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Well, the brain, obviously, to create a memory, you need to create a synapse, which is just a connection firing within your brain.

Josh Clark

Yeah, between two neurons.

Chuck Bryant

Right. And what happens is when you have a memory, you encode that memory, that sensory information into your memory bank, and then from there, your brain categorizes it, kind of files it away like you would on your computer.

Josh Clark

Isn't that weird to think - think about this, Chuck. There are a series of brain cells in your brain right now.

Chuck Bryant

Right, just a few.

Josh Clark

That are connected via synapses that are responsible for maintaining your memory of the scent of a gardenia.

Chuck Bryant

I know.

Josh Clark

How mind boggling is that?

Chuck Bryant

My brain is melting.

Josh Clark

Okay, so when you think of the scent of a gardenia, you can come up with it. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

You can kind of remember what it's like.

Chuck Bryant

I'm right there.

Josh Clark

Apparently, when you smell a gardenia over and over, you can pick up more elements of that smell.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, more nuances within the smell?

Josh Clark

Right, exactly, and you can add to that memory more and more and more.

Chuck Bryant

That makes sense.

Josh Clark

But also, the more that you think about the scent of a gardenia, the more that you recall it, the stronger that memory gets. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I would think so. Kind of like a chef with their palate.

Josh Clark

So yeah, right. But I mean it's like if you train yourself to think of something or if you think of something a lot naturally, your memories of it become stronger because that neuro connection through the synapses becomes stronger, biochemically stronger.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Like when I think of milk steak. I can recall that scent because I think about it on a daily basis.

Josh Clark

I don't know what that is, but that's like the second time this week I've heard that. What is milk steak?

Chuck Bryant

Well, it was from its Always Sunny in Philadelphia last week.

Josh Clark

Okay, so what was that?

Chuck Bryant

Milk steak is a real thing. I think it's a steak that's literally boiled in milk, and I get the impression that it's some old school like from the 1800s or something. But it was very funny, obviously, on that show for Charlie to say it's his favorite food. Anyway, so where were we? Memory! Once your brain has filed those things away, if you want to recall that memory after it's consolidated, you need to retrieve these files like you would on your computer again. Same way! And - well, not the same way, but same theory. In order to do this, your brain literally retraces those original synapses that led to the memory in the first place. So it pulls up all that information for you.

Josh Clark

I've read another article on memory formation, and that process was compared to wearing a path through the woods. Right? You go through the first time, and it might consist of some broken ferns or branches or something like that. So you can kind of find your way. But over the course of months or years, the more you use it, the more visible it is, and the more easily accessible it is.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, like forging a trail?

Josh Clark

Uh huh.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, cool. So we're talking about encoding because of the original held belief that babies could not encode. They thought, "All right, well, maybe they have this memory, but they can't encode it." Not true so says a study with the mobile, little babies in the mobile.

Josh Clark

And the ribbon. How cute is that? Their little kneeless baby legs!

Chuck Bryant

They took these little chubby baby legs, and we're talking two and three month olds, and they tied ribbon - I guess jute rope would have been cruel to little tender baby legs.

Josh Clark

Or sew it with just a rusty needle and twine.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, so they take ribbon, and they tie it to a baby's legs, and then tie it to a mobile above their head. And they found that a baby learned that by kicking their legs, they would make the mobile move, which made the babies coo and pur, I would imagine. But I thought babies always kicked their legs, so I kind of wondered about this.

Josh Clark

That one, I found that same - I had that same idea myself because later on, when they placed the same babies under a mobile, they would start kicking their legs like they wanted to make it move with the ribbon, although the ribbon was no longer attached, and they remembered that if you're under a mobile, kick your legs, and it moves.

Chuck Bryant

Maybe they're just saying, "I don't have kneecaps." Kicking their legs around!

Josh Clark

Maybe, but that actually raises a really excellent point. Like I'm pretty sure any evidence that you can come up with, it's like trying to determine whether or not animals are happy. We express our world views, our emotion, everything verbally or through written language, but it's through language. So before, while we're pre-verbal, everything is up in the air. It's almost impossible to come up with definitive evidence of anything that surrounds infants.

Chuck Bryant

True. That's actually - that's a good set up for later, too, with the verbal. But that's just a tease. Just to close on that study, though, they found that six month old babies actually picked up that relationship between kicking legs and the mobile moving faster. So this is what led them to think that babies actually gradually accelerate that instead of, "Oh, we have no memory and all the sudden, it's my third birthday, and now I do have memory." So it's a gradual thing instead of a sudden - a rapid growth.

Josh Clark

And there's another type of memory called implicit memory. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

This is - we're born with this, but it's also different from our ability to form unconscious memories. It's controlled by the cerebellum, and basically, this is like our ability to remember that, oh, yeah, we're hungry and we need to eat. Or we need to seek out our mother's warmth or something like that.

Chuck Bryant

Sure, like I hear her voice, and I know that that means the milk is coming soon.

Josh Clark

But that also sticks with us throughout our entire lives. So we don't necessarily forget that. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So I mean you don't ever forget, "Oh, I'm hungry. I need to eat," or, "I would like to be warm right now. That usually helps me survive." But it's not centered around necessarily a specific event in time. We've yet to figure out how to put things in the context of a timeline, which apparently is where real, explicit memory begins.

Chuck Bryant

Right, and that's when you need the cues, and that's what we've kind of figured out. Not we, of course, but that's what they figured out is the diff between the babies and the adults is they cannot pick up on the cues from their past, and one of whom that you're talking about was speech, verbalization.

Josh Clark

Right. So we apparently not only do we use language to express ourselves, our thoughts, our views, our opinions, or emotions even, we also apparently form memories using language.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, autobiographical memories.

Josh Clark

Right, there was this really interesting study that is in this article, which by the way, is called Can a Person Remember Being Born? It's on the site. It was written by the esteemed and now famous Kristen Conger.

Chuck Bryant

Yes, of Stuff Mom Never Told You. And it was a very dense article. I got to say, there was not much fluff in here.

Josh Clark

No, Chuck usually highlights the most important ones. I'm looking at his article right now, the entire article is yellow.

Chuck Bryant

All yellow.

Josh Clark

It's a good article. So this study, it was a 2004 study, and it found that it was a study of 27 and 39 month old boys and girls, and it found that if children know the words to describe an event when it happened, they couldn't describe it later after learning the appropriate words.

Chuck Bryant

That is awesome.

Josh Clark

Isn't it?

Chuck Bryant

Very cool.

Josh Clark

So apparently, our language development and memory formation are very closely tied. And as you'll notice, that was a 2004 study, we're just starting to crack the mystery of childhood amnesia.

Chuck Bryant

Right. I got another one for you, too. In relation to memory context has a lot to do with it, and what they found in another study was that preschool age kids can explain sequential order, but sequential order is not the same thing as a timeline of your life.

Josh Clark

Right, so if you're taken to a circus, you might remember first he clown came out, and then the bear attacked the trainer. And that kind of thing! But it's not like this happened two days before I started reading the Ramona Quimby series. It's not like that. And that, like I was saying, that timeline is what forms our life, or else we just have a cluster of weird memories of bears attacking trainers and one chapter of a Ramona Quimby book or setting something on fire. And how can you - if our lives are nothing but a string of memories and hopes for the future, what kind of life is that if we don't have a timeline to fit it on?

Chuck Bryant

Good point.

Josh Clark

That's how we develop our sense of self.

Chuck Bryant

Absolutely. And what was - there was another cool stat in here about how it ties to self-recognition and your ability to recognize yourself as yourself, and they say that they don't think babies have this skill, and they cannot - basically, don't have a personal identity until they're about two years old.

Josh Clark

Not only that, they have no sense of concreteness of the world around them. So I can't remember what age - it's a very young age that they start to develop this, but say within the first two months, when you're sitting there, cooing over a baby, and you leave their field of vision, you're gone. You don't exist any longer and you never did.

Chuck Bryant

Well, that's sad.

Josh Clark

Isn't it? So luckily, that goes away very quickly because I mean again, what kind of way is that to live?

Chuck Bryant

Don't tell the moms that.

Josh Clark

Isn't that odd?

Chuck Bryant

Sure.

Josh Clark

Like you don't exist when you're not in their field of vision.

Chuck Bryant

That's kind of comforting almost in a way, too.

Josh Clark

I guess, when you thump them and run away, they're just like -

Chuck Bryant

I wish I could be forgotten instantly by many people I meet. That'd be kind of nice.

Josh Clark

Oh, Chuck. And what about the cultural aspect of this? I found this interesting as well, stat boy.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, they found that - and this isn't surprising for some reason, but they found in relation to memory that westerners' personal memories focus more on themselves, where as easterners remember themselves as part of a group scenario.

Josh Clark

Isn't that?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it's because we're selfish. Selfish westerners!

Josh Clark

I know. Me, me, me.

Chuck Bryant

And the other cool thing, too, about the parents, they said that parents can - and this is really good for parents to know, actually. The more that you describe things to your children as they're growing up, the better they're going to not only be able to recall that, but be able to describe their own experiences later in life, the more detailed you get with your recounting. Like, "Remember when we went to the zoo yesterday and you saw the bear that had the bowtie on, and then the guy threw the peanut at him, and where should I go from here?"So the more detailed you are with going over these things with your kid everyday, the more they're going to be better off later on in life.

Josh Clark

And Chuck, you're going to like this little outside research. I read a study, or I read an article on a study, I should admit, of 15 months old that shows that sporadic napping actually helps us form the memories needed to learn languages.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah, so they used a made up language that they taught to these kids.

Chuck Bryant

Esperanto?

Josh Clark

Not quite. It was like just babble, but it did have patterns in it, recognizable patterns, and they found that kids who nap more often were able to pick up this language and retain memories of how to speak this language better than kids who did nap as often.

Chuck Bryant

You know, I think that ties into something we said a long time about the brain during sleep using that time to file everything away.

Josh Clark

And that's what dreams are, too. That they're misfiles.

Chuck Bryant

Dude, we're just covering everything we've covered in the past. Full circle, buddy.

Josh Clark

Yeah, we're good like that, aren't we?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Should we talk about how toothpaste and orange juice don't mix?

Chuck Bryant

That's a classic.

Josh Clark

I guess that's it. Right?

Chuck Bryant

I'm done.

Josh Clark

If you want to learn more about why you can't remember your own birth and why people who say they can are full of it, you can go onto our website and type Can a person remember being born in the handy search bar at HowStuffWorks.com, and since I said that, you know what time it is.

Chuck Bryant

It is time for a special edition of listener mail, Josh.

Josh Clark

Yes.

Chuck Bryant

Called Kiva mail.

Josh Clark

You know what? It was recently pointed out to me that we've never spelled the word Kiva.

Chuck Bryant

Kiva.

Josh Clark

Thanks.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I guess it could be Keevaaa.

Josh Clark

Or Keevahhh.

Chuck Bryant

So as most of you know because we've been pounding it into your skulls, we have started a micro lending team at Kiva.org that you can find by searching under the community tabs, stuff you should know. And we had an initial mission to surpass The Colbert Report, as everyone knows.

Josh Clark

Which we did in devastating fashion.

Chuck Bryant

Seventeen days.

Josh Clark

Mr. Colbert's head is no longer attached to his body we did it so quick. So thank you, SYSK army.

Chuck Bryant

We are very, very proud of you guys. And we mean that. And to prove that - well, first of all, we should say at this point we have raised $13,475.00.

Josh Clark

Which is great, which is a very admirable amount for, what, two weeks?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that's awesome. So I just want to go over just - you know, I was perusing the member page on Kiva on our site.

Josh Clark

As is your want.

Chuck Bryant

It's really neat, man. It's like we get fan mail and new get these nebulous comments on the blog, but to actually put faces with these folks and to see them interacting. I don't know, it warms my cockles! So I wanted to say hey to Jonathan of San Diego. He's an IT engineer, and he loaned to a lady in the Philippines who has a fishing business.

Josh Clark

Sweet.

Chuck Bryant

Laurie of Walnut Creek, California, is a civil engineer.

Josh Clark

They have a great amphitheater out there.

Chuck Bryant

Oh really? She supports micro lending because it's a way to empower people, Josh. She has ten different loans to women all over the world.

Josh Clark

Awesome. That's not sexist.

Chuck Bryant

I only give to women as well, actually. Rebecca of Gilbert, Arizona! She says the world is an unjust place with the distribution of wealth embarrassingly uneven. I want to help make it better, even if it's just a little bit at a time.

Josh Clark

That's awesome.

Chuck Bryant

And she satisfied the loan of Gustavo Zorete, who is a taxi owner in Paraguay, and he needed money to repair his home. Kelly and Desmond, very handsome couple from Seattle! Des is a cook, and Kelly buys plants for a nursery, and they gave to Santos in Peru. Drew, who has the funniest picture on there, he's from Osprey, Florida. He is a graduate student and has two loans out. Bob from Toledo. He wants to help someone help themselves. He's a student at Boling Green.

Josh Clark

Oh, yeah, that's where my brother went.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, and he gave to a general store owner in Mongolia. Techno Squid, is this a buddy of yours?

Josh Clark

I have heard that name before.

Chuck Bryant

Because you invited him.

Josh Clark

I did.

Chuck Bryant

Techno Squid knows you. He has orange hair, and he's from Minneapolis, and he says, "I loaned because of guilt," which I thought was pretty funny.

Josh Clark

Wait a minute, is that the guy who I said had to loan because - is that Hackster?

Chuck Bryant

No, no, it's not the Hackster. This is the Techno Squid. He says that one thing you can do is give a gift certificate because - I didn't know this, but apparently, you can give someone a Kiva gift certificate, and if they choose to, they can just cash it in and take the money.

Josh Clark

Bastards.

Chuck Bryant

So instead of giving gift cards this Christmas, he says you should give Kiva gift certificates, and if they want, they can just get the money, or they can do something good with it.

Josh Clark

And you'll know where they stand on the moral divide as well.

Chuck Bryant

True.

Josh Clark

You can really suss out the morality of your loved ones.

Chuck Bryant

And judge them.

Josh Clark

This holiday season.

Chuck Bryant

Just two more. I have Michael from Houston, Texas. He loans because Josh and Chuck told me to. He's a process engineer. And then the all stars of our team so far, Josh. Steve and Connie, Kalamazoo. They have 24 loans out through us. Twenty-four total loans. And Connie teaches kids with learning disabilities, and he manages a Walgreens. So folks -

Josh Clark

Oh, wait, Connie and -

Chuck Bryant

Steve.

Josh Clark

Connie and Steve are definitely getting a pair of t-shirts from us.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, write in, guys. Send us an e-mail, Connie and Steve, with your shirt sizes and address, and we'll get those out. And I just wanted to point out quickly, if you notice, Josh, how many of those names and jobs did you hear as oil magnet or corporation owner?

Josh Clark

Seven.

Chuck Bryant

None. These are teachers. These are students. These are -

Josh Clark

I was thinking yeah, grad students opening up his wallet. That's really significant.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, these people are giving, and so should you, and this is our sort of pledge drive. So -

Josh Clark

Yeah, well, if you want to get on Chuck's and my good side, you should go ahead to our Kiva team page. That's at www.Kiva.org/Team/StuffYouShouldKnow, appropriately enough. And if you have anything you'd like to say to us, or your name is Steve and Connie, and you are the Steve and Connie we just told to e-mail, you can send it to us at StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.

Announcer

For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the HowStuffWorks.com homepage.