Inconclusive Reasons for Early Childhood Memory Loss
Infantile amnesia is a known childhood phenomenon where humans lack the capability to recall memories from their first few years of life, but the reasons for this are highly debated. According to Younger, Alder, and Vasta (2012), infants do possess the ability to create long-term memories, but these memories fade later in development. This paper relates three of my personal childhood experiences to academic articles researching the nature of infantile amnesia. These articles analyze various aspects of the phenomenon including the role of prefrontal cortex development, nurturing or traumatic experiences, and detail retention at a young age.
Brain development is an ongoing process throughout childhood. Newcombe, Drummey, Fox, Lie, and Ottinger-Alberts (2000) examined childhood amnesia up until six years old. At such a young age, our memories are less distinct both verbally and visually. The development of our prefrontal cortex is thought to play a key role in childhood amnesia. The prefrontal cortex is the critical part of the brain responsible for working memory and additional executive functions. Due to our premature cortex throughout childhood, our ability for extensive childhood memories is hindered. Furthermore, Newcombe et al. (2000) analyzed the role nature and nurture play in the retrieval and encoding of memories. Within a flourishing environment, parents who actively ask specific questions to challenge their children may result in higher memory encoding in children. This study reminds me of one of my earliest childhood memories. Growing up, I was afraid of men so I would make my sister attend birthday parties where adult men were present. When I was four years old, I can distinctly remember my sister attending a birthday party with me and playing bean bag toss. I believe this event stays concrete in my memory due to the immense amount of questions my mother would debrief me with after attending parties with my sister. If Newcombe et al. (2000) hypothesis is correct, a nurturing environment of attentive parents could have aided in my memory retrieval. Although, at four years old my prefrontal cortex was not fully developed, my mother asking detailed questions to gain a deeper understanding of my irrational fear could have played a role consolidating this memory.
In contrast to a nurturing environments impact on memory, Cordon et al. (2004) looked at the role trauma plays in childhood memory, and whether early childhood trauma can pass the infantile amnesic barrier. Shown through their extensive research, traumatic events do not have a more significant impact on memory than non-traumatic events in reference to verbal recall before the age of two. After passing the barrier, traumatic events are more impactful in long-term memory as these memories aid in a human’s survival. However, the extent of the trauma is crucial in our ability to recall the memory. Episodes that lead to mental disorders may pose a threat to regulatory memory encoding. One of my first memories clearly links to the effects of trauma on memory encoding. At the age of four, my brother broke my arm. I can vividly remember the moments leading up to the incident and the extensive night spent in the hospital. Relating back to Cordon et al. (2004), I believe this event is engrained in my memory for survival proposes to avoid future injuries. However, understanding that memories can be manipulated, certain aspects of the night, such as the ride to the hospital, could have been imagined or embellished. Further research by Newcombe et al. (2000), showed where details lack, memories become more imagined. Therefore, the ride may reflect a more imagined and semantic memory, because it is typical that when someone breaks a bone they must travel to the hospital.
Further examining the lack of detail in our early memories, Tustin and Hayne (2016) longitudinally studied a group of children’s verbal memory through direct recall, and nonverbal memory through previously learned implicit tasks. Additionally, mothers were asked to explicitly explain what they recalled from the task to compare any overlap with the child’s response eliminating the potential for priming. Over the two testing periods, children showed the ability to recall their implicit and explicit memories. However, during the verbal recall, mothers utilized more detail in their explanation of the task. These results suggest that childhood amnesia is not the inability to encode memories, but the lean nature of the memories themselves. In relation to one of my first childhood memories, I remember being terrified of the tooth fairy around the age of three. My irrational fear caused us to place signs up around the house, so the tooth fairy was informed not to enter my room. Due to the lean nature of my memories at the time, missing details from the event could have been influenced through information from my mother’s retelling of the story. In relation to Tustin and Hayne’s (2016) study, with my mother’s ability to retain more details my interpretation of this memory could have been reconsolidated with details I originally could not recall, due to the toddler’s small capacity for comprehensive memory.
Through the research presented in this paper, it is clear that infantile amnesia is a developing area of study with many hypothesis as to its purpose. Newcombe et al. (2000) stated infantile amnesia may be due to our still developing prefrontal cortex as infants, resulting in poor long-term memory storage. Additional research analyzes the limited capacity during early development to encode detailed experiences into our long-term memory. When reviewing our recallable memories from a young age, research shows memory recollection can be influenced by either a nourishing environment or a traumatic experience. I was able to solidify this research through relating their hypothesis’ to my personal experiences. Future research could examine whether damage to the prefrontal cortex of an adult displays similar symptoms of memory loss to infantile amnesia, expanding on the hypothesis that infantile amnesia is a result of premature brain development. Though the reason for infantile amnesia is still debated, I believe its unknown nature possess an exciting future area of research in developmental psychology.
- Cordon, I. M., Pipe, M., Sayfan, L., Melinder, A., & Goodman, G. S. (2004). Memory for traumatic experiences in early childhood. Developmental Review, 24(1), 101-132. Newcombe, N. S., Drummey, A. B., Fox, N. A., Lie, E., & Ottinger-Alberts, W. (2000). Remembering early childhood: How much, how, and why (or why not). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(2), 55-58.
- Tustin, K., & Hayne, H. (2016). Early memories come in small packages: Episodic memory in young children and adults. Developmental Psychobiology, 58(7), 852-865.
- Younger, A. J., Adler, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2012). Child Psychology: A Canadian perspective. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada.