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New insights into the perplexing puzzle of childhood amnesia

A new study takes a closer look at why and when our earliest memories vanish.

New insights into the perplexing puzzle of childhood amnesia
How parents talk to their preschoolers can influence how many details their children will later remember about very early events in their lives.

Few of us can remember events in our lives that happened before the age of 3. Sigmund Freud called this “black hole” in autobiographical memory infantile amnesia, although today’s scientists use the term childhood amnesia.

Yet, as any parent knows, and as research has clearly shown, children aged 3 (and younger) do remember their past. They can verbally recall and describe specific autobiographical memories, such as going to a circus or to a family wedding.

So, what happens to those early memories? Why — and when — do they vanish?

A study published recently in the journal Memory offers some new insight into this perplexing phenomenon. Its authors, psychologists Patricia Bauer and Marina Larkina of Emory University, report the first empirical evidence that early memories begin to be lost by around age 7.

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The study’s findings also suggest that how parents talk to their preschoolers can influence how many details their children will later remember about very early events in their lives.

Participants were Minnesotans

For the study, Bauer and Larkina recruited 81 3-year-olds and their mothers. All the families were volunteer participants in the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and had been part of an earlier study on the development of memories in infants. (Bauer was on the institute’s faculty from 1989 to 2005.) The families were primarily white with a middle or high socioeconomic status.

The mothers were recorded as they talked with their child about six neutral to positive events that the child had experienced in the previous months, such as a family outing (a camping trip or a visit with distant relatives) or a positive life transition (the birth of a sibling or the first day of preschool). The parents were asked to speak as they normally would to their child.

Over the next few years, the researchers reestablished contact with the families and asked the children to recall the events that they had discussed with their mothers at age 3. The children were interviewed only once and at different ages, ranging from 5 to 9. That way the researchers could track variations in how much the children remembered (or forgot).

Bauer and Larkina found that “children 5, 6 and 7 years of age remembered a substantial percentage of events from the age of 3 years. In contrast, children 8 to 9 years of age had lost access to many of their memories of events from the same early age.”

That finding suggested that age 7 was the “inflection point” for childhood amnesia.

This is not a new observation. Previous studies have also suggested that age 7 is the inflection point. But those studies used adults’ recollections of childhood. This new study is apparently the first one to demonstrate the finding using children’s recollections.

The current study also made an interesting finding regarding parents and the way they talk with their children. The children in the study tended to remember more details of the events they had discussed at age 3 with their mothers if the mothers had done two things: encouraged the child to elaborate on the memories and let the child determine the course of the conversation.

“Deflecting a turn to the child encourages the young partner both to participate in the give-and-take of the conversation and to populate the memory representation with her or his own content,” Bauer and Larkina explain.

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A paradox

The study also revealed a paradox: Children between the ages of 5 and 7 could recall 63 percent to 72 percent of the events they had discussed with their mothers at age 3. Those who were 8 and 9 years old, however, could recall only about 35 percent of the events.

Yet although the older children remembered fewer events, they recalled those events with much more detail. “They routinely featured the ‘basics’ of who did what to whom, and also information that located the events in time and place,” explain Bauer and Larkina. “Importantly, they also took perspective on the events by providing evaluative information about them.”

The researchers believe this finding suggests that narrative skills play a role in what is remembered. After age 7, children have stronger language skills that enable them to form a more elaborate narrative around a memory, which, in turn, helps the memory become more firmly established in their mind. At younger ages, however, children have “relatively impoverished” narratives to accompany their early memories — in other words, they have little knowledge of the what, why, where and when behind the memories. As a result, many of their memory traces are forgotten.

“This pattern of findings makes clear that changes in remembering alone cannot explain childhood amnesia — explanation of the phenomenon must consider forgetting processes as well,” write Bauer and Larkina.