What are your first memories of the holidays? Usually, when it comes to our early childhood, we have to blindly rely on our family members to tell us about our lives. Only a handful of occasions remain as “snapshot” memories, where we can remember a single event, but can’t normally place them into a specific context. But even here, it is unclear whether those sparse early memories are true memories or a kaleidoscope of family anecdotes and photos. False memories may be insidiously recalled from infancy due to the reconstructive nature of memory .
Fake First Memories
Would you believe individuals who claim they remember the moment they started to walk the first time? Researchers are skeptical whether this is even possible. According to several studies, a first memory date encoded earlier than three years of age is improbable. But a result from a very recent study shows that 40% of subjects claim to remember events from age two to three . For researchers, these subjects have most likely fictional first memories, because of something described as childhood amnesia. This phenomenon refers to the inability of adults to remember episodic memories from early childhood of the age of three and earlier.
A Memory Like a Sieve
At the age of two years, children are able to recall recent events, although they need gentle encouragement to retrieve their 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 levels of recall and forgetting seen in adults. It was observed that as children grow and mature, their autobiographical memories mature as well. By the age of eleven, autobiographical memory shows the same level of development as seen in adults . Although young children can remember events before the age of three, they won’t retain those memories into adulthood. This loss of early autobiographical memories is commonly thought to happen at age seven to nine. In a research study, younger children appeared far more vulnerable to forgetting than older children . However, the underlying reasons for childhood amnesia that occur in this supposedly critical age period of seven to nine remain a mystery in spite of decades of research.
Research on how childhood memory develops is a particularly nascent and controversial field. This is probably due to the complex nature of memory formation as it is sub-divided into encoding, storage, consolidation and retrieval of information. Furthermore, it is also influenced by the level and focus of our attention, our emotions and social environment. Whereas some models focus on neurobiological and developmental factors, others view social aspects to be more influential on the ability to form and store memory during childhood. For instance, older theories posited that children are only able to store generic memory and overwrite their old memories with fresh ones . Generic memory provides a scheme based on experience resulting in general knowledge such as “on New Year’s Eve people set off fireworks”. Other ideas hypothesized that cognitive schematic reorganizations of memory retrieval occur toward adulthood due to gained social and linguistic competencies . However, newer and more scientifically-grounded findings cast doubts on both mentioned development-based theories. Firstly, because the hypothesis that young children have generic memory only has not stood up to empirical tests, and secondly, the basic ways of structuring, representing, and interpreting reality are consistent from early childhood into adulthood .
Are All Memories Created Equal?
Looking at the cognitive demands involved in memory retrieval tasks, researchers divide the recognition of a memory stimulus into two different mechanisms: familiarity and recollection . While familiarity reflects a more global measure and is context-free, recollection reflects the retrieval of qualitative information and is context-dependent. Imagine you are on holidays and lie on the beach. You notice a couple next to you. Immediately you have the feeling that you have seen the couple before but cannot remember who they are. This automatically elicited feeling is familiarity. While trying to remember who these people are, you begin retrieving specific details about your previous encounter. For example, you might remember that they were sitting next to you on the airplane. This search process is recollection. Familiarity and recollection rely on different networks of brain regions that still develop as children grow to adolescence . Interestingly, dissociation of these two mechanisms has already been seen in 7-8-year-old children, although it is not clear whether this occurs already before.
Another interesting theory that has gained attention recently is the social interaction model which focuses on the parenting style regarding the narrative construction of memory . Two styles of mother talk, one described as elaborative, the other as more pragmatic, support different types of memory narration from children. The pragmatic style of mother talk is more driven to extract relevant information for ongoing activities and associated with less responding by the child during memory-related conversations. In contrast, “elaborative parents” ask for the when, where, with whom and what and provides the basis for storytelling and constructing narratives. 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.
Efforts to Make Lives Memorable
At present, a multitude of theories exist about how childhood memories stick with us, ranging from inevitable and unalterable developmental effects to how parents brought us up. Thinking about the story of how I fell into a stinging nettle bush while learning to bike on two wheels, I am happy not to remember everything from my childhood. But if there is a chance that we can really make the happy moments of our children’s early lives more memorable, I think we should strive to preserve and cherish those events that are otherwise quickly forgotten.
PhD Student, AG Plested, Charité Medical Neurosciences Program
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 Nelson, Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention, 2000
Originally published in Charité Neurscience Newsletter, September 2018, Vol. 11, Issue 4