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New insights into the perplexing puzzle of childhood amnesia

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.

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.

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.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/07/2014 - 10:49 am.

    Early childhood learning

    I posted about this study the other day to an article Beth Hawkins did on the importance of Pre-K to close the achievement gap – specifically, Pre-K programs aimed at the “under three” crowd based on some recent research findings. It seemed hard to reconcile this idea that kids forget their earliest experiences by the time they are 6 or 7 with the importance of enrichment for children in the “under 3″ age range. The two concepts seemed to directly contradict one another. And then there are those who point out studies that Pre-K gains (typical Pre-K – not before 3 years old) are lost by the third grade or so.

    Perhaps the key to this apparent disconnect lies in the importance of using an elaborative strategy as described above, asking lots of questions like ‘Tell me more’ and ‘What happened?’ and allowing the kids to guide the description in order to end up with kids that have earlier early and more robust memories”.

    That an engaged parent or caretaker is key to SO many of the developmental facets in a very young child that pay off as that child grows older. Looked at this way, the “Memory” journal findings would underscore the importance of early enrichment rather than undercutting it.

  2. Submitted by Dana DeMaster on 02/07/2014 - 03:45 pm.

    Not a Contradiction

    I’m watching my five-year old make this transition. It is absolutely fascinating to watch him forget events that even six months ago he could recall with clarity. I was so surprised by all the things he could remember from a very young age! At four he would talk about trips we went on when he was less than two years old. Now he has no memory of those events.

    It’s not contradictory to the importance of birth to three, though. Just because he doesn’t recall specific events, those events and learnings influence and shape him. It’s not like children suddenly “become” once they have long-term memories. Although he doesn’t remember the plane ride to Portland, learning how to behave and what happens on a plane has stuck with him in a general way. Although he doesn’t recall all the stories we’ve read, his early literacy skills are certainly shaped by those experiences.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/09/2014 - 10:34 pm.

    My mother was trained as a nursery-kindergarten-primary teacher

    and as we were growing up, she and my father always talked about our recent experiences. For example, we went to Rocky Mountain National Park when I was eight and my brothers were five and three. After we came back, my parents kept talking to my brothers about the trip:”Do you remember when we made snowballs in the summertime?” So there was a lot of reinforcement of significant events, going over photographs and talking about them.

    Even so, I remember a lot of things that happened when I was three and four, as well as a couple of things that happened when I was two. Was this because of reinforcement by my parents? Perhaps, but I also remember things that they never witnessed.

    Talking to people about early memories, I find that some have earlier memories than I do, while others remember nothing before the age of eight or ten.

    It might be interesting to research the variations in brain structure and environment that would account for these differences in retention of early memories.

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