Exploring Childhood Amnesia

Why can't we recall our earliest memories?

Posted Apr 14, 2014

What is your earliest memory?

By the time children are two years old, they are able to answer questions about recent events ialthough they often need careful prompting to retrieve memories.  Over the next four or five years, children become better at recalling and describing important events in their lives.  By the age of seven or eight,  most children have well-developed autobiographical memories with the same rate of normal forgetting seen in adults.  

When questioned about earlier memories however, children are rarely able to recall memories of events that happened earlier than age three or four and these early memories become even harder to access as they grow older.  Despite decades of research, understanding why this childhood amnesia happens remains a mystery.

Though children can be prompted to recall early memories, this recall is often plagued by problems with false memory caused by leading questions and unintentional cuing on the part of adults.   For this reason, the American Psychiatric Association has cautioned against cases of adults recalling events of abuse that apparently occurred at a very early age without physical evidence.   For adults however, recall of memories before the age of three or four is virtually impossible regardless of the method used to retrieve those memories, whether through free recall or by targeted recall (such as the birth of a sibling).    

Over the past century, research into the earliest age for which adults can recall a life event has been remarkably stable.  Those memories typically begin at about age three or four with number and quality of memories available gradually increasing over time.  The most widely used method for testing childhood amnesia is the cue word technique.   First developed by Sir Francis Galton in his early research on memory, the technique involves giving participants certain words (eg.,dog, cat, or chair) and then asking them to "think of a specific memory" associated with that word as well as estimating their age at the time when they experienced that memory.    Cue word methods are often used to test autobiographical memory across the entire lifespan.  

By comparing recall at different ages, memory researchers have identified the rate of normal forgetting that occurs for memories developed from the age of eight onward.  From that point on,  amnesia for early childhood events becomes well established with little change over time.   For example, research comparing how well 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds can recall events from early childhood show no real difference in memory despite the decades that have passed.  

So why does childhood amnesia occur?   Various explanations have been offered, including Freud's theory that childhood amnesia is caused by repression of traumatic memories occuring in the child's early psychosexual development.  More modern theorists, however, argue that the key to forgetting lies in the early development of the brain itself.  While young children and even infants appear able to recall information for weeks or months, linking those memories to verbal cues is more difficult.  

In one intriguing research study looking at memory recall from early to middle childhood,  7- to 9-year-old children were interviewed about events they had previously recalled with their mothers at the age of three.  Among seven-year-old children, sixty percent recalled the same events while children tested at age eight or nine remembered only thirty-six to thirty-eight percent of the events.    This suggests that amnesia for early events occurs rapidly over only two years.    Overall, younger children appear far more vulnerable to forgetting than older children.

While there appear to be sex differences in childhood amnesia, with girls being better able to recall early memories than boys, the rate at which early memories are forgotten throughout later childhood is still debated by researchers.   In a new research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,  the cue-word technique was used to test autobiographical memory in children aged seven to eleven years and compared with findings from young and middle-aged adults.   The research was conducted by Patricia Bauer and Marina Larkina of Emory University as part of their ongoing examination of why childhood amnesia occurs.     

By comparing rates of forgetting between children and adults, Bauer and Larkina hoped to test the age of earliest memory among children, college students, and middle-aged adults as measured by cue words.  Along with replicating earlier research looking at childhood amnesia in children, looking at recall of earliest memories in adults allowed them to measure how stable childhood amnesia remains over time.  The participants in the study were 100 children aged seven to eleven with twenty children in each of the five age groups (52 girls and 48 boys).   The two adult groups consisted of twenty adults each (average age of 19 and 43).  

Each participant was tested using the cue-word  method asking the to recall a life event linked to one of twenty neutral cue words.  After describing the event, they were then asked to provide more details and to recall their age at the time the event occurred as well as the time of year.  Since the parents of most of the children participating were in the room, they were able to provide written feedback about how accurate the memory was.   All of the events were recorded on video and scored by independent raters.  

Results showed that most of the memories that children recalled occcured in the previous year but the age of earliest memory tended to be about 3.67 years.  There was no real difference between the different age groups or the two adult groups.  Even for older adults, age of earliest memory was little different despite the decades that passed from early childhood.   One important finding was that children rapidly forgot memories of early childhood but that forgetting slowed as children grow older.   This suggests that the number of available memories relating to early childhood rapidly shrinks in children.   For adults however, memory are less vulnerable to forgetting due to better memory consolidation.  

So what does this mean in explaining childhood amnesia?  While the age of earliest recall seems remarkably stable for both older children and adults, the rapid forgetting that causes early memories to fade means that childhood amnesia emerges fairly early in childhood (by the age of seven years).   As to why this happens, one important clue can be found in the narrative reports that children provide when questioned about specific memories.  

In the study by Bauer and Larkina, seven-year-old children needed considerable prompting to describe events that happened to them while older children and adults provide richer, more verbally complete, narratives with little need for extra prompting.  Since narrative retelling allows us to "rehearse" important memories and retain them longer, memories that are not rehearsed become inaccessible over time and can be quickly forgotten as a result. 

As children grow and mature, autobiographical memory matures as well.  By the age of eleven, autobiographical memory shows the same level of development seen in adults.  Prior to that time however, forgetting appears to be much faster than in adults which may be due to memories failing to consolidate which makes them more vulnerable to memory loss.  As Bauer and Larkina point out in concluding their study, "Accelerated forgetting throughout childhood results in an ever-shrinking pool of memories from early in life. The resulting distribution of memories reveals childhood amnesia in the making."

Like so many other things children learn as they grow older, the ability to remember is a skill that develops with time.   So cherish those memories of your children's early lives and those events that are all too quickly forgotten by growing children.  

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