Study of first memories raises questions about infant amnesia

First memories—a trip to the hospital, an ice cream cone at the beach—change as children get older, a new study finds, and don’t crystallize until about age 10. But the study raises new questions about why the first few years of life, aside from traumatic events, are so forgettable.

BrainConnection from PositScience offers this perspective on what’s known as infantile amnesia:

“Studies suggest that we’re not simply forgetting what happened during our earliest years; far fewer autobiographical memories exist from early childhood than simple forgetting predicts. So the fate of early memories remains puzzling; solving the mystery of infantile amnesia may go a long way towards a more general theory about how we remember and why we forget.”

Researchers once thought language skills were important for storing memories, the PositScience article says, but studies have shown that 6-month-old infants can remember how to kick-start a mobile hung over the crib for more than two weeks after learning it.


So perhaps the type of memory matters too. This abstract describes a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:

“College students answered questions about events that had occurred when they were 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years old and also about external information sources, such as family stories. Results show that the offset of childhood amnesia (earliest age of recall) is age 2 for hospitalization and sibling birth and 3 for death and move. Thus, some memories are available from earlier in childhood than previous research has suggested. Subjects’ mothers judged most of their children’s memories as accurate.“

And of course, the brain itself plays a role. As a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist notes in this L.A. Times article, crucial areas of the brain don’t mature until about 5 or 6.

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