Making Humans

The evolutionary anthropology of parenting and child development

'Babies Can't Remember' Is Bunk

The claim that babies don't remember is unscientific—and potentially harmful.

In Bali, the traditional belief is that every baby is the reincarnation of an ancestor whose spirit has returned from the realm of the gods.

Because he’s only just arrived from Heaven, the baby is closer to the gods than he is to the human world. For 210 days after birth, he must be treated with special respect befitting his divine status.

This charming belief may strike many people as odd. But to me, there is a modern Western folk belief that is at least as outlandish: The notion that young babies can’t remember anything.

I was struck by the irrationality of this belief when I took a sensitive, distressed baby to the pediatrician’s office. The baby had visited the doctor many times before, and she had had some very unpleasant experiences. The baby grew rigid the moment she entered the examination room—a room of distinctive smells, sounds, and lighting. She recognized this place and got very upset.

But the pediatrician’s staff seemed to think it was out of the question that a baby her age could remember anything at all. 

How can educated people believe this? Maybe they're getting mixed up, thinking of the fact that most people can't remember what happened to them in early childhood.

But whether or not you can remember your 3rd birthday party doesn't tell us about a baby's ability to recognize important features of his environment. If babies couldn’t learn to recognize sights, sounds, and smells, they wouldn’t learn.  And research on this point is clear. Babies do learn. They begin learning even before they are born. Some examples:

•             At birth, babies recognize the odors and flavors of foods that their mothers ate while pregnant.

•             Experiments show that newborns can recognize their mothers’ voices and distinguish them from the voices of other women. They may even recognize the sound of specific stories their mothers read aloud while pregnant.

•             Newborns can also recognize shapes and textures that they’ve encountered before.

•             In the months after birth, babies listen to the speech around them. They learn to pick out individual words from the stream of sounds they hear people speak.

•             By 9 months, babies can remember the details of specific events—like watching an adult demonstrate how to play with a toy—for at least a month. Thirteen-month-old babies have been able to recall such events up to eight months later.

And of course baby brains track their emotional world—whether their caretakers are warm or cold, attentive or unresponsive. If they didn’t, a parent’s degree of responsiveness would have no bearing on her baby’s attachment security. And we know it does.

Is this really so surprising? Most animals have some kind of recognition memory. Wasps--insects with tiny brains—can remember individuals they met the week before. Pigeons are capable of remembering specific images for over 18 months.

So when you hear someone suggest that your baby doesn’t remember, you might ask him: How does he know?  When people deny that babies can learn, it surely changes the way they interact. Even leaving aside the question of neglect and abuse—why spare babies suffering if they aren’t going to remember?—our beliefs may rob babies of valuable opportunities.

Recently, Franziska Kopp and Ulman Lingenberger have collected evidence that the brains of 4-month-old babies are more likely encode memories for objects when they are engaged in joint attention—those moments when we follow the gaze of another person and share her awareness of what’s going on.

If you don't think your baby can learn anything, will you be as likely to call her attention to interesting objects? Will you engage her in two-way "conversations," a practice that helps children learn language? Probably not.

Myths can be charming. But I don’t think this one is. When adults discount the abilities of babies to remember, they might find themselves treating babies more like objects and less like people. And that’s not good for babies.

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References

For more information about the studies cited, click on the links above. For more information about infancy in Bali, see

Diener M. 2000. “Gift from the gods: A Balinese guide to early child rearing,” in A world of babies: Imagined childcare guides for seven societies (J. DeLoache and A. Gottlieb, eds.) New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 199-231.

The bulk of this article appeared previously in a post called “Yes, babies remember!” for the BabyCenter blog. All text is copyright © 2012 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

Image of Balinese ceremony by Tropenmuseum / wikimedia commons; teaser image of mother and child by Ken Hammond / wikimedia commons

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., is a writer and anthropologist interested in how parents, peers, evolution, and cultural forces combine to shape the way kids learn and grow.

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