Young Children Can Access Earliest Memories, Study Finds

THURSDAY May 12, 2011 -- Young children may have memories stretching back to late infancy, but these memories fade away as childhood proceeds, a new Canadian study finds.

Researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland asked 140 children ages 4 to 13 years to describe their three earliest memories, and approximate how old they were at the time the event happened. The children's parents confirmed the events and their timing.

Some of the youngest children could recall memories from before 2 years of age.

However, these early life memories tended to get lost as children aged. Two years later, the researchers asked the children the same questions. Overall, those who were 7 or younger when questioned the first time recalled different memories the second time around. In contrast, one-third of the 10- to 13-year old children described the same memory at both rounds of questioning.

The researchers suggest this is because the very early memories of young children are fragile and vulnerable to forgetting.

The study is published May 11 in the journal Child Development.

"Younger children's earliest memories seemed to change, with memories from younger ages being replaced by memories from older ages," said study leader Carole Peterson, professor of psychology at the university, in a news release from the Society for Research in Child Development. "But older children became more consistent in their memories as they grew older," she said.

In essence, as children grow up and lose memories of their early years, they are losing part of their childhood, concluded Peterson. "So our 'psychological childhood' begins much later than our real childhood. And most or all of those events that previously were talked about, that caused laughter or tears, are no longer accessible if they occurred in our preschool years," she added.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health offers more detailed information on memory loss.

Posted: May 2011


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