Whenever I teach something about memory in my child development class at Rutgers University I start by asking my students to recall their very first memories. Some students talk about their first day of preschool; others tell of a time when they were hurt or upset; some cite the day their younger sibling was born.
Despite major differences in the details, these memories have a few things in common: They are everyone autobiographicalor memories of significant experiences in a person’s life, and they usually do not appear before the age of 2 or 3 years. In fact, most people can’t remember events from the early years of their lives — a phenomenon researchers have dubbed infantile amnesia. But why can’t we remember the things that happened to us as toddlers? Does memory only work after a certain age?
Here’s what researchers know about babies and memory.
Babies can form memories
Despite the fact that people can’t remember much before the age of 2 or 3, research suggests that infants can form memories — just not the kind of memories you tell about yourself. In the first days of life Infants can remember their own mother’s face and distinguish it from a stranger’s face. A few months later, infants can demonstrate this remember many familiar faces by smiling the most at those who see them the most.
In fact there are many different types of memories except those that are autobiographical. There are semantic memories or memories of fact, like the names for different varieties of apples or the capital of your home state. There are also procedural reminders, or reminders about how to perform an action, such as opening the front door or driving a car.
research out Psychologist Carolyn Rovee-Collier Labor in the 1980s and 1990s was known to show that infants can form some of these other types of memories from an early age. Of course, babies can’t tell you exactly what they remember. So the key to Rovee-Collier’s research was to develop a task that addresses babies’ rapidly changing bodies and abilities to assess their memories over a long period of time.
In the version for 2- to 6-month-old infants, the researchers place an infant in a crib with a mobile hanging over it. They measure how much the baby kicks to get an idea of their natural tendency to move their legs. Next, they tie a string from the baby’s leg to the end of the mobile so that when the baby kicks, the mobile moves. As you can imagine, toddlers quickly learn that they are in control – they like to see the mobile move and therefore they are kicking more than they did before the cord was attached to their leg, showing that they have learned that the mobile moves by kicking.
The version for 6 to 18 month old infants is similar. But instead of lying in a crib, which this age group won’t be doing for much longer, the toddler will sit on the parent’s lap, hands on a lever that will eventually start a train on a track. At first, the lever doesn’t work, and the experimenters measure how hard a baby naturally pushes down. Next, turn the lever up. Now the train will move around its tracks every time the kid presses it. Toddlers quickly learn the game again and press the lever much harder when it sets the train in motion.
What does that have to do with memory? The smartest part of this research is that after Rovee-Collier trained infants to do one of these tasks for a few days, he later tested whether they remembered it. When the infants returned to the lab, the researchers simply showed them the mobile or train and measured whether they were still pedaling and pressing the lever.
Using this method, Rovee-Collier and colleagues found that if infants were trained for one minute, by 6 months of age they could remember an event a day later. The older the children were, the longer they remembered. She also found that you can Getting infants to remember events longer B. by training them over a longer period of time and reminding them – for example by showing them that the mobile phone moves by itself for a very short time.
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