Children and Early Memory

A new study suggests that children can recall early memories. Psychology professor Carole Peterson of Canada’s Newfoundland Memorial University and her colleagues recently did a study on memory involving 140 children from the age of four to the age of thirteen. The children were asked to tell researchers about three of the earliest memories they could recall at the beginning of the study and asked about them again two years later. The experiences and the times they occurred were confirmed with the children’s parents. 

The early memories were suggested to be fragile by the fact that those aged four to seven had different memories two years after the initial interview. The same memories were recalled by one third of those from the age of ten to thirteen at the second interview. The earliest memories change from the ages of four to ten appear to change to later times over the years; by the time children are ten years old the earliest memories remain consistent. 

There were some children in the study that could not tell researchers about the memories they had previous related to them. The children that could not remember were given summaries of the memory by researchers. The older children were able to recall the memory from the summery while those in the four to seven year age range said that the memories were not theirs. Researchers made up three memories to check the accuracy and the children denied those memories being theirs as well. 

The study sheds new light on infantile amnesia revealing the children experience it as well. Carole Peterson said that “Younger children’s earliest memories seemed to change.” The memories from the youngest ages were getting replaced as the children grew older with the earliest memories becoming those that occurred later in life. Older children had more concrete memories. Eventually we all lose our earliest memories and leave a piece of childhood behind us causing psychological childhood to occur after our actual childhood begins. 

Emotionally charged or traumatic events were not present very often during the study when memories were examined. Most memories were of happy times although a few did include some fearful moments for the children. The study concluded that while children are able to recall early memories the emotions attached to them and what they contain do not affect which memories are later recalled.

Emory University’s Dr. Patricia Bauer suggested that memories are encoded differently as we age which could explain why they begin to fade over time. There is still more research needed to determine just how many of the early memories are lost by the human brain.