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The Adults Who Remember Being Born

"The best way I could describe it – it was like sitting in your car in the middle of a blizzard and someone breaks the window and pulls you out in the cold."

by Gavin Haynes
23 September 2019, 1:25pm

The terrifying sight a newborn is greeted by. Photo: Radius Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Being pulled headfirst out of the birth canal is no one's idea of a good time.

The terse pinging of the machines. The crying. The shame about the crying. The desperate embarrassment of mortality, of nudity. It's little short of a miracle that we don't remember our own birth. The greatest mercy our frail psychology has ever been shown is the giant celestial magnet that is wiped across our hard drives somewhere around age three.

But here's the thing: somewhere out there, a few hard drives seem to have escaped the magnet.

"I remember being in the womb," says 36-year-old Elliander Eldridge, "and I remember seeing a bright light and a feeling of motion, but I don't remember seeing anything other than light. At least, not right away. When my eyes opened, I remember seeing my mother's face. At birth, the general feeling was curiosity – looking around, but not fully understanding what I was looking at."

Elliander puts this memory down to trauma. He was born with something called Bilateral Stahl's Ear, a rare excess of cartilage that a surgeon corrected as soon as he was born.

"It's not a matter of suddenly remembering it years later," he says. "I simply didn't forget. Likely due to the trauma involved. I wasn't sedated and it was extremely painful. I don't exactly remember the pain itself, but I remember my reaction to the pain, and my own screams."

You might think this is just a flat-out lie, but some of what we know about what's dubbed the "infantile amnesia phenomenon" is very strange indeed.

For instance, in 1986, researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered that three-day-old infants were capable of distinguishing a particular passage from The Cat in the Hat that had been read to them twice daily for the previous six weeks of gestation. In fact, they could distinguish it from similar passages, matched for word count, length and rhythm. Not only were they remembering – their memory was highly sophisticated.

What's more, these infants preferred the familiar passage even if it wasn't their mother reading it. In other words, not only could they remember it, they were smart – they could differentiate much more than we commonly imagine.

Gill Bullen's daughter is now in her thirties, but she was already a prodigious talker when she was two-and-a-half. "[At some point] she discovered her tummy-button, which she'd never really noticed before," says Bullen. "So I explained to her how she'd been attached to mummy. And she said: 'Yes, and I was cold.'

"'Well darling,' I said, 'you shouldn't have been cold.' Then she said, 'The towel – it was rough and it hurt my skin.'

"We left it at that. A few days later I had my 15-week hospital appointment for my twins. In the car on the way back, we were talking. I said: 'Can you remember anything else about being a baby?' She said. 'I didn't like the milk.'

"I said: 'Mummy Milk or the stuff in bottles?'

"'Bottled milk. It was horrid – it tasted as if it had hair in it.'"

In those days, the milk hospitals recommended was called FMA, which had an extremely granular taste. Really not all that pleasant.

"'I didn't like it. Our new baby won't like it either.'

"She went back to the subject of first minutes after birth. She said: 'Mummy was there, and daddy was there, and everyone was very happy so I was happy too.' The funny thing is, she can't remember any of that now. But she can still remember reaching to the top end of her cot, and horrible milk with the hair taste. These are not thoughts I could have planted in her head, because these are not thoughts I had."

Again, the common understanding is that this is poppycock. But there is also plenty of evidence that young children can remember things they forget even a couple of years later.

newborn baby in hospital
Photo: brt PHOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

In a 2005 study by Dana Van Abbema and Patricia Bauer, kids between seven and nine were interviewed about events from when they were three years old. Of the seven-year-olds, 60 percent could still remember them. But of another set of kids, aged nine only 36 percent could remember. In short, childhood is its own little ice age, in which the memories most distant are being ploughed into the dirt to make way for fresh ones.

This has to do with changes in parts of the brain's structure. The hippocampus – the section of the brain most responsible for memory – has a large growth spurt around our third birthday. There's also something called "synaptic pruning": the theory that we are born with way more neurones than we could ever need, and that, some time around the age of seven, the brain starts to trim all the neurones we're not using – meaning these poorly-formed memories are ripe for the cut.

"At a very early age your memories aren't all that socially important," suggests Dr Punit Shah, Researcher in Psychology at the University of Bath. "It's more important to remember things like pain than details of things that are happening. The hippocampus undergoes a period of rapid development between three and five. The memories being encoded at that time are not being encoded terribly well. But evolutionarily, that's OK – there's not much that happens to you that's beneficial to remember."

Dr Shah doesn't believe that people can remember their own births. "Not to tarnish their experience, but it is very unlikely," he says. "The main reason is a process called confabulation. For many people, they have been told things that they then go on to remember as them actually experiencing this. Your parents telling you specific details about your birth – that might lead you to fill in the rest."

"When people say I faked it, I honestly just take all of it with a grain of salt," says Aaron Howard, another man who remembers being born. "They are my memories, so it's impossible to show someone who can't or won't comprehend it. I trust my mind, but who's to say if it's real or not?"

Being born does sound dramatic. "I remember being angry and hurt. Cold. Freezing even. Bright lights, lots of discombobulation," says Aaron. "The best way I could describe it – it was like sitting in your car in the middle of a blizzard and someone breaks the window and pulls you out in the cold. Very abrupt, very painful. Couldn't see or make sense of what was really happening… but the main emotion I felt was scared: taken from what I knew, into a whole new world. I felt like I was still underwater, unable to clearly hear what was being said."

Aaron had an interesting childhood. He reports sustaining some 40 concussions as a kid, which he puts down to being ADHD. His mum smoked weed throughout her pregnancy. There was also the car crash:

"Mum flipped her VW Beetle off a highway embankment in the rain and I took some head trauma in the baby seat. After a couple more serious brain injuries over the last 20 years, from snowboarding and mountain biking, I started to have these intense associations with my past."

I put it to Gill Bullen that psychologists think she's confabulating. "That's what they keep telling us," she retorts, "but they don't seem to talk to children enough. For instance, the elder of my daughter's two brothers – his earliest memory is of being in a bouncy cradle. Because he can remember a toy – a series of people-shaped figures – he described it as 'people, and you were supposed to hit them'. Again, I'd forgotten it until he mentioned it."

Someone who was both a scientist and talked to children was Berkeley's Carolyn Rovee-Collier, who as a young mother began by experimenting with her own first-born in his crib. She figured out that, from three months, he could not only move a mobile with his foot, but that he could remember how to do it. This formed the basis for a series of experiments with other infants that showed, in summary, that "a three-month-old can recall what he or she learned yesterday, and a nine-month-old can remember a game for as long as a month-and-a-half".

"There's no question that we remember our early childhood memories," argued Rovee-Collier, in an interview with The Associated Press in 1984. "We just have a great deal of difficulty getting to them. Babies, like elephants, never forget."

While she might have been adamant, many of her peers still felt that her work was flawed.

As for what those who remember – or at least claim to remember – their birth get out of it, there's no common consensus.

"Through adulthood, the fact that my memories of being a baby have the same level of detail as later childhood has shaped how I view children and interact with them," says Elliander Eldridge. "Aside from that, I don't think it really affected my perceptions any more or less differently than remembering any other event in childhood."

"It taught me things are much bigger than what I realise," says Aaron Howard. "I felt a deeper connection to my life, and that there was something before all this. I became a lot more spiritual. I began to question the very nature of life and reality. It made me a lot more empathetic."

Reincarnation never sounded so good.

@GavHaynes

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