Can You Remember Being Born?

I have had the same motif repeat itself in my dreams, for as long as I can remember.

It’s not in every dream, but it’s quite frequent.

It’s not a visual or auditory memory, it’s simply a physical sensation, followed by my own responsive emotions.

I hasten to add that I am on my mood stabilizers at present.  This isn’t some maniacal delusion of grandeur.  Anyway, I’m fairly certain my brain would do a better job if it was inventing something.

I had a dream about it again last night.  I was on a train, trying to find one of my rabbits (who was on a platform somewhere very far away) and I needed to get across the train to the other end.  I walked through a carriage, then where there would usually be a door, there was a hole, at about waist height, that was red and cushioned, pushing in firmly.  I looked at the hole, I didn’t really want to go through it, it looked far too small and like I’d never get through it.  I was afraid of getting stuck.  This is another part of the motif that repeats: Fear of getting stuck.  I went in headfirst because there seemed no other way of doing it (another thing that always repeats:  Going through the hole headfirst), and I felt so squashed as I was trapped in this narrow, compressing tunnel, I couldn’t breathe, all the air was forced out of my lungs and I was afraid that I was going to die.  My hip seemed to get stuck and it ached as some force external to myself propelled me down this red tunnel that was crushing me.

I emerged on the floor of the vestibule where the train doors are.  But it was the wrong area.  I had to go through another of these tunnels.  I was almost despairing.  I didn’t want to do it again.  It was awful.  I knew I would never see my husband if I didn’t go.  So I went through the next one.  It was worse because it was the same only I’d just experienced it so I had less patience for the process.  I was suffocating and my hip hurt again.  It was exactly the same as before.  This time I emerged in the right place, where I flagged down a train attendant and told her that I wanted to complain about how difficult it was to traverse this train.  I kept telling her that I was the smallest person on the train, and so, if I had hurt myself trying to get through that awful tunnel, how would larger people ever cope?  I said it was discriminatory.  She dismissed my problems, the train stopped, and the dream moved on into a train platform where Katie (my bunny) was becoming a Youtube sensation for coming back from the dead, and her original “owners” were proudly telling the assorted press how they had trained her to tapdance.  I punched one of them for mistreating her.

I wouldn’t have paid any heed to the tunnely thing in the dream, except I’ve had dreams with the same motif before.

As a child, I used to regularly dream that I was being chased by angry, faceless adults in various locations and scenarios and that there was a secret passageway somewhere near me.  I would find the passageway at a point when I was alone, and it was always a little too small for me, I would force myself through, head first, knowing it was the only way to get to the “safe place” and after being forced through this compressing tunnel, always black or red, I would emerge in a different world to the one I’d started in.  The start and end scenarios differed quite considerably in these dreams, but that process was the same each time.  Sometimes it was just a black hole in reality, an opening in the fabric of what I’d known to exist.  Other times it was a cave with a black river flowing at the bottom.  One time it was a bungee jump into a hole that unexpectedly I got forced through, then they had difficulty removing the safety cord at the other end.

I have never dreamed the same dream twice in this respect, but the physical feeling – compression, squeezing my head into a space far too small for it, difficulty breathing, sounds like being underwater, a desperation to get out, a fear of being trapped and dying, and the pain on one side of the outside of my pelvis, are always the same.  There is always a sense of horror.  When I was three or four, a very early memory of a dream, I dreamed of being too big for a play tunnel and getting stuck inside it until this lady (in the dream she was visiting the house) came and pulled me out.

So today I thought on this, and as I was describing this dream to my husband I suddenly realized that this was a memory.  Often my emotional memory seems to play out in my dreams, so rather than directly reliving my traumas and significantly unpleasant events (although I do that as well) I often re-live the sensations and emotions connected with those big flashbulb events.  I think these dreams are my brain remembering how it felt to be born, even though I don’t remember the actual event itself.

I did some research on this after I got to thinking about it.  The “dream interpretation” websites were, as always, useless.  Their main error is assuming everyone has one absolute set of symbols in their dreams, when the meaning of dreams is highly unique and individual, as your brain made up the dreams, not some mystical outside force.  So I started looking for “remember your birth” and it turns out there’s a few accounts of this online.  Here’s a bit of a quick linkdump: This account from 2010 claims to remember it. I don’t like the “I’m special because I remember this and you’re narrow minded because I’m going to assume you don’t believe me” undercurrent or the description of things that my biology brain knows don’t quite occur like that. It sounds like an account that’s been much refined through years of cross-checking, especially this bit “Over the past few years my mother’s memory has started to fade” (the writer being 25 at this point) – could it be that the mother was originally humoring the child’s ‘memories’ and now is sick of her going on about it? As an interpretation, I would say this person probably had one or two very brief memories around her birth but that over time she has “filled in the blanks” either consciously or subconsciously. Without having been there, we can never know, but to me, it doesn’t ring true as anything more than a “I’m a special snowflake with special powers” kind of account. I looked elsewhere for answers to my own questions.

Going back earlier, this account from 2003 describes their birth and claims that their purpose in life is to tell people about it. I’m more inclined to believe that this person actually has this memory (whether the memory is true or not is of course debatable) and they’ve clearly spent time thinking about what it means and why they remember it. There are some very interesting and unusual details thrown in that probably make sense to them. They have come to the conclusion that their purpose in life is to tell people about their experience and to reassure people that life is continuous, not fixed by the physical vessel. It’s an interesting idea.

A reddit conversation got quite banal and bogged down with the possible/impossible argument, with the fundamental lines of reasoning centering around the development of the hippocampus around age two. This is the main flaw in every argument against remembering being born. This article by The Epoch Times aggregates lots of people’s experiences to give a broader idea of how prevalent this really is as a concept. Unfortunately, while some children seem to be spontaneously remembering things from pre-birth, their parents seem to over-encourage or over-emphasize the significance of such memories so the child can no longer hold ownership of the integrity of the original memories, because it starts to become parent-coached. An example in this article is of the child “Magnus” who almost certainly had the original memories but the meaning and size of them seems to have grown in the telling.

In another meta-study, this professional recounts some of the “remembering being born” conversations he’s had and gives guidelines on how to approach this topic with a child – ideally around age three.

In a discourse of recent work by psychologists, it was claimed that there is now research showing that we can form long term memories from as young as 3 months or 6 months old, saying that “implicit, unconscious memories” such as “feeling safe when you hear your mother’s voice” can be formed but “explicit” memories (events) cannot be retained due to brain development. This certainly fits best with my own view and the dreams I’ve been having, because I’m certainly not remembering the actual event (as it was perceived and interpreted by all present, e.g. being in the hospital, being separated from my mother immediately, etc) of being born. I didn’t even know until I was going through some personal effects from my parents, who both died in the last 12 months, that I was born in a psychiatric hospital, not a regular one, and that my father (listed on my birth certificate) didn’t meet me for at least 3 months.  If it was episodic memory, it’s likely that I would have dreamed, remembered or known some of that stuff, too, and I never have.

Some scientists are in disagreement about when we are first capable of producing memories, with many scientifically literate laypeople (the sort who take one specific version of the Theory of Evolution as gospel, but don’t really know the details, and go out of their way to argue with fundamentalist Christians about creationism, as if their scientific dogma makes them superior somehow; you know the type) pointing to the hippocampus development around age two, as if it suddenly pops into existence rather than grows over time. What if they are looking at the wrong models of memory?

Every model of memory that I’ve ever seen given credence seems to focus on auditory and visual memories – the sort you can see in these “accounts” of “remembering my birth” that propagate the internet.  What if, as many survivors of past trauma and general unpleasantness can probably attest, memory can be the memory of emotion, the memory of pain, the memory of sensation; things conveyed by the endocrine system and nerves?  The areas of the brain that process these stimuli are developed from before we are born, because nobody is in any doubt about whether babies are sentient, whether they have emotions or feel pain.  Even the most callous animal researcher couldn’t deny that.  Any court in the land will prosecute you if you torture a newborn to death.  If we weren’t in general agreement that babies feel sensation and have feelings, surely people could defend against such charges.  Culturally, we know it’s just as much of an atrocity to harm a baby as an adult.  Moreso, perhaps, to many people.

So I’m putting it out there, that perhaps we need a new model of memory, one that accounts for sensation and emotion.  Perhaps we could even say that sensation and emotion are ALWAYS a component of memory, and that the sounds and pictures evoked are filled in or triggered by them?  Perhaps this is why some people’s memories subtly change compared to other people’s, or over time?  Perhaps this is why some people’s brains make false memories of things that have been shown to be untrue?

Can you remember anything from your early years?  How do those memories come to you?  Is it traditional memories such as sounds and images or something else?

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Author: MsAdventure

I am a twentysomething travel, photography and beauty blogger who occasionally writes about other topics. Within travel, I tend to write mostly about Europe because all the other travel bloggers seem to write about South East Asia. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.delightandinspire.com

4 thoughts on “Can You Remember Being Born?”

  1. I’m not sure if this is relevant to early memories specifically but I’ve found that my memories of when I was mentally unwell are patchy to say the least… I wonder if in that case it’s to do with my brain being too busy just getting by to bother making a note of what happened! Obviously I don’t really have the knowledge of biology, psychology or neurology etc to give a more meaningful answer…

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    1. That is interesting. I felt that when I was very unwell, I struggled to remember being any other way. It consumed me. Ther e’s one theory that we can retrieve things best if we’re in the same state we were in when we learned them (which is why I wouldn’t take meds through A-levels/uni) but I don’t know how much of a difference it makes. It’s a fascinating topic though and I’d love to know more about it all.

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      1. I know what you mean, I think. Like a switch flips and all the sad memories come flooding in. Then later it flips back and the good ones replace them? I’ve heard about the same state thing before… I think I’m okay not remembering if it means avoiding being like that again…

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