Think of memory as like orzo, Bauer says. “It’s not like one big piece of lasagna noodle. Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.” Adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the orzo. Babies have a big-holed colander: The orzo slips through. “What’s happening with the baby is that a lot of the information is escaping even as the baby is trying to get it organized and stabilized.” In early infancy, a lot of experiences never become memories—they slip away before they can be preserved.
Babies remember far more than anyone thought, in other words, but far less than any adult. It’s only around 24 months that children seem to get better colanders: They get better at catching the orzo—at organizing and processing information in a way that makes a memory out of an experience.
The past gets stickier, too: Memories no longer slip away after a couple of months. Children a few months under 2 retain memories of experiences a year earlier—half their lifetime ago. But they won’t retain those memories into adulthood: No one remembers their second birthday party. For a few reasons—nascent neural structures, the lack of knowledge to make sense of early experiences, the lack of language to represent those experiences—it may be impossible for any part of our lives before, say, 24 months to stick around into adulthood. The average earliest memory—fragmented and lonely, but real—doesn’t date until around 3½ years of age.