Memory

An infant will not remember his circumcision (true or false)

Like many of the statements on this site that are commonly asserted to justify a particular decision, this one is only partially true. It is true that an infant will not have an articulate cognition of his circumcision. But while it was commonly believed, in the past (even by some circumcisers) that infants have no early memories of trauma, pain, or of their birth, however traumatic to the mother it might have been, recent neurological research and techniques prove otherwise. Infants can remember events that happen to them before they are verbal, and before parts of their brain, such as their hippocampus or cortex, are developed to articulate about the event. But deep in the brain, the amygdale, can register basic emotions, including fear (the “fight or flight response”) and trauma. Whether an infant’s brain can – and will – register any trauma from circumcision varies from child to child and will depend, very much, on whether the child was protected from the pain, mainly by given adequate pain relief, and comforted by a loving parent both before and after the event.

Proof

In the past, before brain-imaging and other technologies were available, only an infant’s crying was regarded as proof of pain. And that cry was often attributed to other factors, such as separation from his mother, being restrained and the like. Even no crying was considered “proof” of no pain rather than proof that the infant might be suffering from shock and trauma. And memory? No one thought memory could go before a child’s verbal skills had developed.

One study, in particular, suggests memory from the pain or trauma of circumcision can occur (You can also see the study here: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). In the study, infants who had inadequate pain relief during their circumcision showed more crying, when, 4 to 6 months after their circumcision, they were being vaccinated.

One other issue to consider is that some people have a higher tolerance of pain for an event. Thus, what can be a traumatic event to one person can be a forgettable encounter or incident to another. Similarly, some infants experience a circumcision as far more painful or traumatic than another infant might.

Recent studies show that there are actually several types of memory – at least five types, including false memory (thinking something happened that never occurred), fuzzy memory, and partially-correct memory, to name a few.

What is important here is that both the memory and the trauma of a circumcision can be minimized with adequate pain relief, bonding and cuddling (especially with the mother), and other factors. Or, it can be avoided altogether by leaving an infant intact. What’s important here is that the statement that the infant won’t can’t or won’t remember his circumcision depends on both his nature and brain development, and the circumcision procedure itself.