Infantile Amnesia

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Infantile amnesia results from the repression of childhood polymorphous sexuality and the oedipal complex during the latency period. It constitutes a reference point and a model for subsequent (especially hysterical) amnesias and repressions. It "hides the earliest beginnings" of our lives "up to the sixth or eighth year" even though we have "good reason to believe that there is no period at which the capacity of receiving and reproducing impressions is greater than precisely during the years of childhood" (Freud, Sigmund 1905d, p. 174-175).

The notion of amnesia is defined by Freud in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), when he develops his conception of infantile sexuality. Having conceived since 1895 of the notion of hysterical amnesia, he now acknowledges an amnesia bearing upon the first six to eight years of life, contrasting with the capacity of the child's memory and its ability to register impressions. The infantile impressions falling under this amnesia constitute the reference point and model for later amnesias in the adult, helped into being by the preexistence of a repressed that attracts to itself any elements of the subject's current life that resemble it.

Freud compares infantile amnesia to the hysterical amnesia of adults and suggests that in both cases the process would consist "in a simple withholding of these impressions from consciousness, viz., in their repression" (1905d, p. 175). That withheld from consciousness (repressed) includes infantile sexuality, defined as "polymorphous perversity," which thus allows Freud to say that "neurosis is the negative of perversion." This formulation could be attributed to a belief that the lifting of amnesia (hysteric and infantile) would permit the subject to follow in a reverse direction the path that leads from a childhood that did not endure censorship to neurosis. But Freud came to distinguish between a lifting of amnesia and a true lifting of repression in "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g). In "Constructions in Analysis" (1937d), this belief came up against the idea of sexuality as structurally linked to anxiety through the effects of the death drive.

The sexuality of the neurotic preserves important pregenital infantile traits. The hysteric refuses the perverse dimension of these traits all the more so since the child that they once were had already refused them during the latency period. Infantile amnesia creates for everybody a kind of "enigmatic prehistory." The infantile prehistory finds the infant, who is just beginning to speak, imbued with primal fantasies that become the object of a radical amnesia, primal repression. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, this is not specifically a question of the Oedipus complex; however, it much be understood that infantile amnesia bears upon the entire "polymorphously perverse infantile sexuality/Oedipus complex," the oedipal conflict in turn reinforcing the censorship of infantile sexuality.

It is notable that Freud theorizes infantile amnesia moreover starting from the observation of children outside the analytic setting rather than from adults recalling their childhoods in analysis. Infantile amnesia covers over the mnemic traces of childhood, about which Freud says in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) that they are "outside of time" and "indestructible," which would tend to define all unconscious psychic life as infantile in its essence, on the condition that what is psychically infantile be distinguished from the real infant.

FranÇois Richard

See also: Memories; Memory.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-751.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-245.

. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis, II). SE, 12, 145-156.1