When Was Your Earliest Dream?

If you ask most people about their earliest memory,you will typically hear about some memorable event taking place around the age three or four.   Often known as infantile or childhood amnesia, this inability to recall events taking place during the very earliest years of life seems universal.    Though some children may well recall events as far back as their first year of life, these memories tend to degrade rapidly and, as people grow older, that twilight period during which early memories can't be retrieved seems to expand as well.   For example, many older adults may find themselves unable to recall events that occurred before they were ten years of age, possibly due to changes in memory storage over time.  Different theories have been proposed to explain infantile amnesia, including  the role that language plays in memory consolidation, something that is more difficult for children during the prelingual stage of life.  

Researchers have proposed that the infantile amnesia period (IAP) is especially important for childhood development.   Traumatic experiences during this period can cause a cascade of changes similar to what trauma victims often experience.   For developing children, this can mean early development of fear responses more commonly seen in adults which, while providing a short-term advantage for children growing up in adverse environments, can lead to long-term mental health issues.  This includes being more vulnerable to anxiety disorders -  and nightmares.  Thus,  dream recall from the very earliest years of life, well within the infantile amnesia period, may play an important role in frequent nightmares and possibly mental health problems as well.    

Tore Nielsen of the Université de Montréal and Dream and Nightmare Laboratory, Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine, Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, in Quebec has proposed a stress-acceleration hypothesis of nightmares which he is using as the basis for his work on early dream recall and nightmare formation.    According to this hypothesis, traumatic experiences during the earliest years of life can shorten the infantile amnesia period and influence the kind of nightmares that may be experienced much later.   As one example of this, a 2011 study of 5,020 Hungarian adults found that people who were separated from their mothers for at least a month in the earliest year of life were much more likely to have nightmares as adults than control subjects.   Other studies have also linked adult nightmares to early adverse experiences during preschool years.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.









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