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Childhood amnesia

childhood amnesia, childhood amnesia psychology
Childhood amnesia, also called infantile amnesia, is the inability of adults to retrieve episodic memories which are memories of specific events times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual who, what, when, and where before the age of 2–4 years, as well as the period before age 10 of which adults retain fewer memories than might otherwise be expected given the passage of time1 The development of a cognitive self is also thought by some to have an effect on encoding and storing early memories2 Some research has demonstrated that children can remember events from the age of 1, but that these memories may decline as children get older345 Most psychologists differ in defining the offset of childhood amnesia Some define it as the age from which a first memory can be retrieved This is usually at the age of 3 or 4, but it can range from 2 to 8 years678 Changes in encoding, storage and retrieval of memories during early childhood are all important when considering childhood amnesia9 Some other research shows differences between gender and culture, which is implicated in the development of language Childhood amnesia is particularly important to consider in regard to false memories and the development of the brain in early years Proposed explanations of childhood amnesia are Freud's trauma theory which is not supported by evidence and is generally discredited, neurological development, development of the cognitive self, emotion and language


  • 1 History
  • 2 Methods of retrieval
    • 21 Cued recall
    • 22 Free recall
    • 23 Exhaustive recall
  • 3 Accessible and inaccessible memories
  • 4 Fading memories
  • 5 Animal models
  • 6 Individual differences
    • 61 Gender
    • 62 Ethnicity, culture, and society
  • 7 Implications
    • 71 Personality
    • 72 Forgotten memories
    • 73 False memories
  • 8 Proposed explanations
    • 81 Freud's trauma theory
    • 82 Emotion
    • 83 Neurological
    • 84 Neurobiological
    • 85 Developmental
    • 86 Language
  • 9 See also
  • 10 References
  • 11 Further reading


Childhood amnesia was first formally reported by psychologist Caroline Miles in her article "A study of individual psychology", published in 1893 by the American Journal of Psychology10 Five years later, Henri and Henri published a survey showing that most respondents’ earliest recollections occurred between the ages of two and four11 In 1904 G Stanley Hall noted the phenomenon in his book, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education12 In 1910, Sigmund Freud offered one of the most famous and controversial descriptions and explanations of childhood amnesia Using psychoanalytic theory, he postulated that early life events were repressed due to their inappropriately sexual nature He asserted that childhood or infantile amnesia was a precursor to the ‘hysterical amnesia,’ or repression, presented by his adult patients13 Freud asked his patients to recall their earliest memories and found that they had difficulty remembering events from before the ages of 6–814 Freud coined the term "infantile" or "childhood amnesia" and discussed this phenomenon in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality14 In 1972, Campbell and Spear published a seminal review about childhood amnesia in Psychological Sciences recapping the research conducted to understand this topic from neurological and behavioral perspectives in both human and animal models

Methods of retrievaledit

The method of memory retrieval can influence what can be recalled15 Specifically, whether an individual is prompted to remember a specific event, given more general guidelines, or asked to recall any memory possible, the cue method generates different results

Cued recalledit

Many studies use cued recall to retrieve memories15 In its basic form, the experimenter gives the participant a word, and the participant responds with the first memory they think of associated with that word11 This method has generally estimated the age of offset at approximately 3–5 years but can vary However, there are several objections to the cue method One memory is recorded per cue word, so it can be difficult to know whether this memory is their earliest memory or the first memory that popped to mind It may be a problem if participants are not asked to record the earliest memory they can recall which relates to the cue If the experimenter asks the participant to specifically use childhood memories or the earliest memories associated with a cue, the age estimate can be 2–8 years111617 Even with this measure, cued recall is only useful for bringing to mind memories formed several months after the introduction of that word into the participant's vocabulary18 One study performed by Bauer and Larkina 2013 used cued recall by asking children and adults to state a personal memory related to the word and then state the earliest time that it occurred The researchers found that the younger children need more prompts or cues However, for both children and adults, the earliest memory retrieval was around three years old19

Free recalledit

Free recall refers to the specific paradigm in the psychological study of memory where participants study a list of items on a specific trial, and are then prompted to recall the items in any order Free recall, in regard to childhood amnesia, is the process by which experimenters ask individuals for their earliest memories, and allow the participant to respond freely11 There is no significant difference when people are instructed to recall their earliest memories with cued recall compared to free recall; however, it is thought that a major benefit of free recall is that every question gets answered which may in turn elicit memories from an earlier age11

Exhaustive recalledit

In the exhaustive recall method, participants are asked to record all the memories they can access before a specific age11 This method, like free recall, relies on participants to come up with memories without cues Exhaustive recall yields a better understanding than others on the amount of memories surviving from early childhood, but can be demanding for the subjects who often have to spend many hours trying to remember events from their childhood11 No major differences among word cued, interview, focused and exhaustive recall have been found20

Accessible and inaccessible memoriesedit

The amount of early childhood memories a person can recall depends on many factors, including emotion associated with the event, their age at the time of the remembered event and the age at the time they are asked to recall an early memory5 Although people assume that not recalling a childhood memory means they have forgotten the event, there is a difference between availability and accessibility Availability of a memory is the idea that the memory is intact and is in memory storage Accessibility of a memory is dictated by the moment in time that a person attempts to recall that memory Therefore, cues may influence which memories are accessible at any given time even though there may be many more available memories that are not accessed11 Some other research suggests that people's earliest memories date back to the ages of 3 or 4 years J A Usher and U Neisser 1993, this issue reported that some events, like the birth of a sibling and a planned hospitalization, can be readily remembered if they occurred at age 2 However, the bits and pieces of such memories that were obtained in their research may not be indicative of genuine episodic memory An alternative hypothesis is that these apparent memories are the result of educated guesses, general knowledge of what must have been, or external information acquired after the age of 221

According to a study by West and Bauer, their research suggests that earlier memories have less emotional content than later memories, and are less personally meaningful, unique, or intense Earlier memories also do not seem to differ greatly in perspective112223 However, certain life events do result in clearer and earlier memories Adults find it easier to remember personal, rather than public, event memories from early childhood This means a person would remember getting a dog, but not the appearance of Halley's Comet Psychologists have debated the age of adults’ earliest memories To date, estimates have ranged from 2 to 6–8 years of age11 Some research show that the offset of childhood amnesia earliest age of recall is 2 years of age for hospitalization and sibling birth and 3 years of age for a death or change in houses Thus, some memories are available from earlier in childhood than previous research has suggested24

Some research suggests that until around the age of 4, children cannot form context-rich memories Although more evidence is needed, the relative lack of episodic memories of early childhood may be linked to maturation of prefrontal cortex25 It also suggest adults can access fragment memories isolated moments without context, often remembered as images, behaviors, or emotions from around age 3, whereas event memories are usually recalled from slightly later162611 This is similar to research showing the difference between personal recollections and known events Known memories change to more personal recollections at approximately 47 years old

Fading memoriesedit

Children can form memories at younger ages than adults can recall While the efficiency of encoding and storage processes allows older children to remember more,27 younger children also have great memory capacity Infants can remember the actions of sequences, the objects used to produce them, and the order in which the actions unfold, suggesting that they possess the precursors necessary for autobiographical memory10 Children's recall is 50% accurate for events that happened before the age of two4 whereas adults remember near to nothing before that age3 By age two, children can retrieve memories after several weeks, indicating that these memories could become relatively enduring and could explain why some people have memories from this young310 Children also show an ability to nonverbally recall events that occurred before they had the vocabulary to describe them, whereas adults do not182829 Findings such as these prompted research into when and why people lose these previously accessible memories

Some suggest that as children age, they lose the ability to recall preverbal memories30 One explanation for this maintains that after developing linguistic skills, memories that were not encoded verbally get lost within the mind30 This theory also explains why many individuals' early memories are fragmented – the nonverbal components were lost31 However, contrary findings indicate that elementary aged children remember a greater amount of accurate details about events than they had reported at a younger age32 and that 6–9 year old children tend to have verbally accessible memories from very early childhood32

This increased ability for children to remember their early years does not start to fade until children reach double digits31 By the age of eleven, children exhibit young adult levels of childhood amnesia31 These findings may indicate that there is some aspect of the adolescent brain, or the neurobiological processes of adolescence, that prompts the development of childhood amnesia

Animal modelsedit

The phenomenon of infantile amnesia is not specific to humans This initially was researched in rat models and found that younger rats ‘forget’ a conditioned avoidance response to a shock-paired compartment faster than older rats did These findings have also been replicated in a number of different species with different learning paradigms33 The importance of animal model research should not be understated as these studies have informed neurobiological findings about childhood amnesia and would be impossible to ethically conduct in humans Because infantile amnesia has been observed in animals, the occurrence cannot be explained just by cognition specific to humans such as language or an understanding of ‘self’ Of course, a main criticism of animal models is that development and cognition in animals and humans are starkly different Researchers have attempted to address this by creating timelines for animal development based on changes in learning and memory abilities, brain development, and hormones3334

Individual differencesedit

Many factors affect memory in humans, including gender and culture3536 Differences in early memory between these groups can tell us about potential causes and implications of childhood amnesia Importantly, the individual differences described below tell us that elaborative parenting styles and emphasis of cultural history when teaching children may result in recollection of earlier childhood memories This suggests that childhood amnesia offset is modifiable by parenting and teaching styles and is therefore not only predetermined or completely biological


Generally, when a gender discrepancy is found in the age at first memories, females have earlier memories than males37 Women's earlier first memories may be accounted for by the fact that mothers generally have more elaborative, evaluative, and emotional reminiscent style with daughters than with sons,38 which has been shown to result in more richly detailed childhood memories38 Women across cultures tend to have more information-dense memories than men,37 and women tend to refer to others more than themselves in their earliest memories3739 Men, on the other hand, exhibit more early memory focus on their individual selves Men have been found more likely than women to mention negative memories37 Contrarily, studies have shown that girls are more likely to remember traumatic and transitional events, whereas boys more often remember play events31 Early recollections have also been found more accurate in their reflections of friendliness for men and dominance for women40

Ethnicity, culture, and societyedit

MacDonald et al found that Chinese participants had later first memories than New Zealand European Pakeha or Maori participants This effect was due to Chinese females, whose average age at first memory was 61 years37 This indicates that Chinese women have later first memories than Chinese men, which differs from the general finding that women report earlier first memories than men It has been suggested that since sons are prized far over daughters in China, parents may have more elaborate, evaluative, and emotional reminiscent styles with boys than with girls37 Among American subjects, it has been found that Black women have later memories than Black males or White females39 Black women also tend to report a low proportion of personal experience39 which is independently correlated with being older at the age of first memory It may be that with parents are more likely to use directives than to elaborately reminisce with daughters in Black American culture39

Findings that Korean individuals have significantly later first memories than American individuals was originally thought to be caused by the collectivist nature of Asian cultures37 The lack of an age discrepancy between Chinese males and New Zealand European individuals serves to cast doubt on this theory37 Additionally, studies on the Black American population, which is considered a more collectivist society, have not indicated later first memories than non-collectivist cultures39 It has been shown, however, that children from Western cultures tell more elaborated, detailed, and emotional narratives than children from eastern cultures38

Maori adults report significantly earlier memories than either Pakeha or Chinese individuals The traditional emphasis on the past in Maori culture may have led to an earlier understanding of the nature of time, and to the retrieval of earlier memories Maori are also more likely than Pakeha or Chinese individuals to indicate a family story as a source for their memory37



Individuals' first memories significantly reflect their personality traits41 People who reveal a more detailed memory are more likely to be open in their daily lives and disclose a range of personal information to others40 Characteristics of early recollections are reflective of friendliness for males and dominance for females40

Forgotten memoriesedit

Even when childhood events are not remembered episodically, they can be implicitly remembered Humans can be primed and implicitly trained earlier before they can remember facts or autobiographical events25 This is most important in terms of emotional trauma Adults can generally recall events from 3–4 years old,68 and have primarily experiential memories beginning around 47 years old However, some suggest that adults who had traumatic and abusive early childhoods report an offset of childhood amnesia around 5–7 years old6 It has been suggested that this is because stressful experiences can injure memory centers and possibly make it harder to form memories6 This coupled with the fact that priming can occur at a younger age may indicate that children in abusive situations have implicit memory connections that were formed in response to the abuse61325 Whether or not these 'repressed' memories can affect individuals is a matter of considerable debate in psychology

False memoriesedit

Very few adults have memories from before 25 years old Those who do report memories from before this age usually cannot tell the difference between personal memory of the event and simple knowledge of it, which may have come from other sources42 Events from after the age of 10 years are relatively easy to remember correctly, whereas memories from the age of 2 are more often confounded with false images and memories43 Memories from early childhood around age two are susceptible to false suggestion, making them less trustworthy These should be treated with caution, especially if they have severe consequences43 Imagining details of a false event can encourage the generation of false memories43 Studies have shown that people who merely imagine a childhood event are more likely to believe that it happened to them compared to events they did not imagine44 This term has been coined imagination inflation and shows that merely imagining an event can make it seem more plausible that it really happened Using the same paradigm, people that are shown a doctored photograph of themselves as a child in an event that never occurred can create false memories of the event by imagining the event over time45 Therefore, this implies that it would be possible for false memories to be generated in and/or fed by a court case This concern has led the APA to advise caution in accepting memories of physically and sexually abusive events from before the age of 2 However they also recommend that these memories not be entirely discounted, due to the heinous nature of the crimes1

Proposed explanationsedit

Freud's trauma theoryedit

Sigmund Freud is famous for his theories of psychosexual development which suggest that people's personality traits stem from their libido sexual appetite which develops from early childhood experiences13 Freud’s trauma theory, originally named "Seduction Theory" posits that childhood amnesia was the result of the mind’s attempt to repress memories of traumatic events ie sexual abuse by caretakers that occurred in the psychosexual development of every child This supposedly led to the repression of the majority of memories from the first years of life when children were supposedly obsessed with exploring their sexuality13 Notably, Freud himself abandoned this theory in the late 1800s46 Freudian theory, including his explanation for childhood amnesia, has been criticized for extensive use of anecdotal evidence rather than scientific research, and his observations that allow for multiple interpretations47

While Freudian psychosexual theory is widely debunked, there are some insights to be made into the effect of childhood emotional abuse on memory Examining the effects of emotional trauma and childhood amnesia shows that stressful experiences do in fact disrupt memory and can damage central parts of the memory system such as the hippocampus and amygdala6 Adults who were abused or traumatized in childhood form their earliest memories about 2–3 years after the general population In addition, they demonstrate considerable problems with visual, pictorial, and facial memory storage and retrieval compared to non-traumatized individuals6 This implies that trauma can disrupt the formation of early childhood memories, but does not necessarily give evidence for Freud's theory of repression


The amygdala which is primarily concerned with emotions and emotional content of memories and the hippocampus which concerns primarily autobiographical memories are generally independent, but emotions and the amygdala are known to play a role in memory encoding, which is typically associated with the hippocampus48 Research has found that later memories in childhood have more propositional and emotional content than earlier memories and are rated as more meaningful and vivid It has been suggested that differences in the emotions experienced by infants and adults may be a cause of childhood amnesia22 Whether highly emotional events can stimulate and improve reliable recall flashbulb memories is still highly debated49

Some studies have discovered that emotional experiences are connected with faster retrieval times, leading to the belief that emotional events have heightened accessibility in our memories1 If an event is particularly surprising, it receives prioritized processing in the brain, most likely due to evolutionary reasons The evolutionary theory states that if a past event was particularly frightening or upsetting, one is apt to avoid a similar situation in the future, especially if it is endangering to one's well-being In addition, the more significant an event, the bigger impact it has and the more rehearsal it receives1

Various findings have shown that events such as hospitalization and the birth of a sibling are correlated with an earlier offset of childhood amnesia, which may be because they were more emotionally memorable24 However, other seemingly emotional memories such as the death of a family member or having to move do not affect offset, possibly because the events were not as meaningful to the child24 Some memories are therefore available from earlier in childhood than others, which has led to the conclusion that very emotional events can be encoded and recalled earlier than non-emotional events24


One possible explanation for childhood amnesia is the lack of neurological development of the infant brain, preventing the creation of long term or autobiographical memories1 The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, two key structures in the neuroanatomy of memory, do not develop into mature structures until around the age of three or four These structures are known to be associated with the formation of autobiographical memories2547

The physiological approach appears to support findings about memory loss in relation to amnesiacs and others who have experienced damage to the hippocampus They cannot efficiently store or recall memories from past events, but still exhibit perceptual and cognitive skills and can still learn new information1 The development of the Medial Temporal Lobe MTL, which contains the hippocampus, has been found to specifically have a defining impact on the ability to encode and maintain memories from early childhood50

While the neurological explanation does account for blanks in very young children’s memories, it does not give a full explanation for childhood amnesia because it fails to account for the years after the age of four It also fails to address the issue that children themselves do not show childhood amnesia1 Children around the age of two to three have been found to remember things that occurred when they were only one to two years old29 This discovery that three-year-olds can retrieve memories from earlier in their life implies that all necessary neurological structures are in place51

There are, however, reasons to believe that different associations within the cerebral hemisphere have an effect on remembering events from a very early period in a person's life Mixed-handedness and bilateral saccadic eye movements as opposed to vertical or pursuit eye movements have been associated with an earlier offset of childhood amnesia, leading to the conclusion that interactions between the two hemispheres correlate with increased memory for early childhood events52


Research into the neural substrates of infantile amnesia using animal models has found that the major inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid GABA may be involved in the regulation of retrieval of infantile memories in adults53 GABA activity is known to be higher in early childhood development than it is in adulthood, not just in animals but also in humans Researchers have hypothesized that increased GABA activity in development has an effect on memory retrieval later in life Past studies have shown that GABA aids in forgetting of fear memories in infancy and that it may be a general mechanism for regulating infant memory retrieval54 Interestingly, this can be seen in humans Benzodiazepines are a class of psychiatric medication which increase GABA expression and are known to produce anterograde amnesia, or a failure to encode memories after taking the medication55 Subjects taking benzodiazepines are found to perform worse on learning and memory tasks compared to drug-naive subjects

Previously, it was assumed that neurogenesis, or the continued production of neurons, ended after development However, recent findings have shown that there are high levels of neurogenesis in the hippocampus in early childhood which taper out into adulthood, although neurogenesis continues to persist slowly56 As the hippocampus is known to be vital to memory processes, there are obvious implications for childhood amnesia Interestingly, animal research has shown that the age of high neurogenesis is in the developmental period when persistent memories are least likely to be formed It has been proposed that hippocampal neurogenesis degrades existing memories This may be due to increased competition between the new and existing neurons, followed by the replacement of synapses in preexisting memory circuits This theory has been supported in mouse models in which increasing neurogenesis levels also increased forgetting5758 Additionally, decreasing neurogenesis after new memory formation resulted in decreased forgetting58


The development of a cognitive self is also thought by some to have a strong effect on encoding and storing early memories1 As toddlers grow, a developing sense of the self begins to emerge as they realize that they are a person with unique and defining characteristics and have individual thoughts and feelings separate from others As they gain a sense of the self, they can begin to organize autobiographical experiences and retain memories of past events This is also known as the development of a theory of mind which refers to a child’s acceptance that they have beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts that no one else has access to1

The developmental explanation asserts that young children have a good concept of semantic information, but lack the retrieval processes necessary to link past and present episodic events to create an autobiographical self25 Young children do not seem to have a sense of a continuous self over time until they develop awareness for themselves as an individual human being Some research suggest this awareness is thought to form around the age of 4 or 5, as children in this time period can understand that recent past events affect the present, while 3-year old children still seem unable to grasp this concept59

This acknowledged link of the past to the present and the concept of continuous time and therefore a continuous self is also helped by memory talk with adults1 Through elaboration and repetition of events experienced, adults help children to encode memories as a part of their personal past and it becomes essential to their being1


The incomplete development of language in young children is thought to be a critical cause of childhood amnesia as infants do not yet have the language capacity necessary to encode autobiographical memories1 The typical schedule of language development seems to support this theory 47 There appears to be a direct correlation between the development of language in children, and the earliest age at which we can obtain childhood memories around the age 3-447 Performance on both verbal and nonverbal memory tasks shows that children with more advanced language abilities can report more during a verbal interview and exhibit superior nonverbal memory compared to children with less advanced language skills28 If children lack language, they are unable to describe memories from infancy because they do not have the words and knowledge to explain them Adults and children can often remember memories from around three or four years of age which is during a time of rapid language development Before language develops, children often only hold preverbal memories and may use symbols to represent them Therefore, once language comes online, one can actively describe their memories with words The context that one is in when they encode or retrieve memories is different for adults and infants because language is not present during infancy60

Language allows children to organize personal past and present experiences and share these memories with others1 This exchange of dialogue makes children aware of their personal past and encourages them to think about their cognitive self and how past activities have affected them in the present38 Several studies have shown that simply discussing events with children in general could lead to more easily retrievable memories3 There has also been research that suggests the degree to which a child discusses events with adults shapes autobiographical recollection61 This has implications for gender and cultural differences Autobiographical memory begins to emerge as parents engage in memory talk with their children and encourage them to think about why a certain event happened Memory talk allows children to develop memory systems in order to categorize generic versus unique events1

The social cultural developmental perspective states that both language and culture play a role in the development of a child's autobiographical memory62 An important aspect of this theory considers the difference between parents who discuss memories at length with their children in an elaborative style, and those who do not Children of parents who discuss memories with them in an elaborative style report a greater number of memories than children who do not discuss their memories Memories are described with greater detail This has implications for cultural differences

See alsoedit

  • Developmental psychology
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Prenatal and perinatal psychology
  • Neurobiology
  • Reminiscence bump


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Further readingedit

  • Cordón, Ingrid M; Pipe, Margaret-Ellen; Sayfan, Liat; Melinder, Annika; Goodman, Gail S 2004 "Memory for traumatic experiences in early childhood" Developmental Review 24 1: 101–132 doi:101016/jdr200309003 ISSN 0273-2297 
  • Davis, Nicola; Gross, Julien; Hayne, Harlene 2008 "Defining the boundary of childhood amnesia" Memory 16 5: 465–474 doi:101080/09658210802077082 ISSN 0965-8211 
  • Hayne, Harlene; Jacks, Fiona 2011 "Childhood amnesia" Cognitive Science 2 2: 136–145 doi:101002/wcs107 
  • Peterson, Carole; Warren, Kelly L; Short, Megan M 2011 "Infantile Amnesia Across the Years: A 2-Year Follow-up of Children's Earliest Memories" Child Development 82 4: 1092–1105 doi:101111/j1467-8624201101597x ISSN 0009-3920 PMID 21557741 
  • Beck, Melinda 31 May 2011 "Blanks for the Memories: What's Your Earliest Childhood Recollection Scientists Delve Into Brain Circuitry for Answers" The Wall Street Journal Retrieved 11 March 2017 

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