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Childhood amnesia

Childhood amnesia, also called infantile amnesia, is the inability of adults

to retrieve episodic memories before the age of 24 years, as well as the period
before age 10 of which adults retain fewer memories than might otherwise be
expected given the passage of time. For the first 12 years of life, brain
structures such as the limbic system, which holds the hippocampusand
the amygdala and is involved in memory storage, are not yet fully
developed. Research has demonstrated that children can remember events from
before the age of 34 years, but that these memories decline as children get
Research has shown that children have the capacity to remember events that
happened to them from age 1 and before while they are still relatively young,
but as they get older they tend to be unable to recall memories from their
youngest years. Psychologists differ in defining the offset of childhood amnesia.
Some define it as the age from which a first memory can be retrieved; research
using this definition of offset typically occurs around 3.5 years but can range
from 2 to 5 years, depending on the memory retrieval method. Others define
offset of childhood amnesia as the age at which memories change from general
memories to more specific autobiographical events; this occurs at approximately
4.5 years of age. This may be due to children's developing accurate knowledge
of their own memory. It is generally agreed there is no set age that people should
be able to remember events from.
Changes in encoding, storage and retrieval of memories during early childhood
are all important when considering childhood amnesia. 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.

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 Psychology.[ Five years later, Henri and Henri
published a survey showing that most respondents earliest recollections
occurred between the ages of two and four. 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 Education. 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
patients. Freud asked his patients to recall their earliest memories and found that
they had difficulty remembering events from before the ages of 68. Freud
coined the term "infantile" or "childhood amnesia" and discussed this
phenomenon in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. 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 retrieval

The nature of the childhood event and the method of memory retrieval can
influence what can be recalled. The amount of early childhood memories a
person can recall also 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 memory.

Cued recall
Many studies use cued recall to retrieve memories. 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 word. This method has generally
estimated the age of offset at approximately 5 years. 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 lowers to 34 years.
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 vocabulary. 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 old.

Free recall
Free recall is the process by which experimenters ask individuals for their
earliest memories, and allow the participant to respond freely. This method is
more accurate than the basic cued recall method, and elicits memories from an
earlier age. But there is no significant difference when people are instructed to
recall their earliest memories with cued recall or earliest memories with free
recall. One major benefit of free recall is that every question gets answered.

Exhaustive recall
In the exhaustive recall method, participants are asked to record all the
memories they can access before a specific age. 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 childhood. No major
differences among word cued, interview, focused and exhaustive recall have
been found.

Accessible and inaccessible memories

Certain memories from the early childhood years are more accessible than
others for adults. 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 accessed.
According to a study by West and Bauer, 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 perspective.
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. Research has suggested that public events are
remembered from approximately age 6. Adults can remember salient events
such as a hospitalization and the birth of a sibling earlier than most events (2 and
3 years, as opposed to 3.5 years). Other seemingly important events, like the
death of a loved one and moving from one home to another, do not seem to be
recalled as early.
Research suggests that until around the age of 4, children cannot form context-
rich memories. They cannot remember the source for given information because
their prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped. Adults can access fragment memories
(isolated moments without context, often remembered as images, behaviors, or
emotions) from around age 3.5, whereas event memories are usually recalled
from slightly later. This is similar to research showing the difference between
personal recollections and known events. Known memories change to more
personal recollections at approximately 4.5 years old.

Fading memories

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, 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 memory. Children's recall is 50% accurate for events that
happened before the age of two whereas adults remember near to nothing before
that age. 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 young. Children also show
an ability to nonverbally recall events that occurred before they had the
vocabulary to describe them, whereas adults do not. Findings such as these
prompted research into when and why people lose these previously accessible
It has been found that as children age, they lose the ability to recall preverbal
memories. One explanation for this maintains that after developing linguistic
skills, memories that were not encoded verbally get lost within the mind. This
theory also explains why many individuals' early memories are fragmented the
nonverbal components were lost. However, contrary findings indicate that
elementary aged children remember a greater amount of accurate details about
events than they had reported at a younger age and that 69 year old children
tend to have verbally accessible memories from very early childhood.
This increased ability for children to remember their early years does not start to
fade until children reach double digits. By the age of eleven, children exhibit
young adult levels of childhood amnesia. 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.
There are rare exceptions, though. For example, author Ray Bradbury claimed to
be able to remember every detail about his own birth.


Individuals' first memories significantly reflect their personality traits. 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 others. Characteristics of
early recollections are reflective of friendliness for males and dominance for
Forgotten memories
Even when childhood events are not remembered episodically, they can
be implicitly remembered. Humans can be primedand implicitly trained earlier
before they can remember facts or autobiographical events. This is most
important in terms of emotional trauma. Adults can generally recall events from
around 3.5 years, and have primarily experiential memories beginning around
4.7 years old. However, adults who had traumatic and abusive early childhoods
report an offset of childhood amnesia around 57 years old. It has been
suggested that this is because stressful experiences can injure memory centers
and possibly make it harder to form memories. 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
abuse. Whether or not these 'repressed' memories can affect individuals is a
matter of considerable debate in psychology.

False memories
Very few adults have memories from before 2.5 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 sources. 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 memories. 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
consequences. Imagining details of a false event can encourage the generation of
false memories. 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 imagine. 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
time. 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 crimes.

Proposed explanations

Freud's trauma theory

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 experiences. Freuds trauma theory,
originally named "Seduction Theory" posits that childhood amnesia was the
result of the minds attempt to repress memories of traumatic events (i.e. 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 sexuality. Notably, Freud himself abandoned this theory in the late
1800s. 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 interpretations.
While Freudian psychosexual theory is widely debunked, there are some
insights to be made into the effect of childhood emotional abuse on memory.
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 interpretations. 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 amygdala. Adults who were
abused or traumatized in childhood form their earliest memories about 23 years
after the general population. In addition, they demonstrate considerable
problems with visual, pictorial, and facial memory storage and retrieval
compared to non-traumatized individuals. 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 hippocampus. 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 amnesia. Whether highly emotional events can stimulate and improve
reliable recall (flashbulb memories) is still highly debated.
Studies have discovered that emotional experiences are connected with faster
retrieval times, leading to the belief that emotional events have heightened
accessibility in our memories. 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 receives.
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 memorable. 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
child. 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 events.

One possible explanation for childhood amnesia is the lack
of neurological development of the infant brain, preventing the creation of long
term or autobiographical memories. 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 memories.
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
information. 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 childhood.
While the neurological explanation does account for blanks in very young
childrens 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 amnesia.
Children around the age of two to three have been found to remember things that
occurred when they were only one to two years old. This discovery that three-
year-olds can retrieve memories from earlier in their life implies that all
necessary neurological structures are in place.
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 events.

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
adults. 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 retrieval. 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 medication. 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
slowly. 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 forgetting. Additionally, decreasing neurogenesis after new memory
formation resulted in decreased forgetting.

The development of a cognitive self is also thought to have a strong effect on
encoding and storing early memories. 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 childs
acceptance that they have beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts that no one else has
access to.
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 self. 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. 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 concept.
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
adults. 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 being.

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 memories. The typical schedule
of language development seems to support this theory. At the age of one, babies
tend to be limited to one word utterances, and childhood amnesia predicts that
adults have very few, if any, memories of this time. By the age of three, children
are capable of two or three word phrases, and by age five their speech already
resembles adult speech. 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 of four). 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 skills. 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 infancy.
Language allows children to organize personal past and present experiences and
share these memories with others. 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 present. Several studies
have shown that simply discussing events with children in general could lead to
more easily retrievable memories. There has also been research that suggests the
degree to which a child discusses events with adults shapes autobiographical
recollection. 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 events.
The social cultural developmental perspective states that both language and
culture play a role in the development of a child's autobiographical memory. 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.