February 24, 2024

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Why don’t we remember things that happened in infancy?

Why don’t we remember things that happened in infancy?


Why don’t we remember things that happened in infancy?

Whenever Vanessa LoBue teaches memory in a child development class at Rutgers University, she starts by asking students to recall their first memories.

Some students talked about their first day of kindergarten; some talked about times when they were hurt or unhappy; some talked about the day their younger siblings were born.

Despite the vast differences in details, these memories do have several things in common: They are all autobiographical memories, or memories of important experiences in a person’s life, and they don’t usually happen before age 2 or 3.


Why don't we remember things that happened in infancy?


In fact, most people don’t remember the events of the first few years of their lives — a phenomenon that researchers call “infantile amnesia.” But why can’t we remember what happened when we were babies? Does memory only come into play at a certain age?


Here’s what researchers know about babies and memory:


Babies can form memories

While people can’t remember much until the age of 2 or 3, research shows that babies can form memories — just not the kind of memories you tell about yourself. In the first few days of life, babies can recall their own mother’s face and distinguish it from a stranger’s face.

After a few months, babies can prove they remember a lot of familiar faces by smiling at the people they see most often.


In fact, there are many different kinds of memories besides those autobiographical ones.

There is semantic memory, or memory of facts, such as the names of different varieties of apples , etc.

There is also procedural memory, or memory about how to perform an action, such as opening your front door or driving a car.


Research by psychologist Carolyn Rovee-Collier in the 1980s and 1990s showed that infants can form some of these other types of memories at an early age.

Of course, babies can’t tell you exactly what they remember. Thus, the key to the Rovee-Collier study was to design a task sensitive to infants’ rapidly changing bodies and abilities to assess their long-term memory.


In the version for babies aged 2-6 months, the researchers placed the babies in a bassinet with a cell phone hanging over their heads .

They measured how much babies kicked to see their tendency to move their legs naturally. Next, they tied a string from the baby’s leg to the end of the phone so that whenever the baby kicked, the phone would move.

As you can imagine, babies learn very quickly that they are in control – they like to see the mobility device move, so they kick more than they did before the rope was attached to the leg, which shows that they already know that kicking will Make the mobile device move.


A version designed for babies aged 6 to 18 months is similar. But instead of lying in a crib — babies at this age don’t lie for long — the baby sits on the parent’s lap with both hands on a lever that ultimately moves the train on the track.

At first, the lever didn’t work, and the experimenter measured how much the baby naturally depressed. Next, they turned the lever on.

Now, every time the baby presses, the train moves on the track. The baby learned the game again quickly, and there was a noticeable increase in the number of times the baby pressed the lever as the train moved.


What does this have to do with memory? The neatest part of the study was that after training the infants on one of these tasks for several days, Rovee-Collier later tested whether they remembered it.

When the babies returned to the lab, the researchers simply showed them a cell phone or train and measured whether they were still kicking and pressing levers.


Using this method, Rovee-Collier and colleagues found that at 6 months, if infants received one minute of training, they could remember an event a day later. The older the baby, the longer they remember.

She also found that you can make babies remember events longer by training them for longer periods of time and giving them reminders — for example, by having them watch their phones move for a short period of time.



Why not autobiographical memory?

If babies can form memories in the first few months, why can’t people remember things from the earliest stages of life? It’s unclear whether people develop “juvenile experiential amnesia” because we cannot form autobiographical memories, or if we have no way of retrieving them. No one knows for sure what happened, but scientists have some guesses.


One is that autobiographical memory requires people to have some self-awareness. People need to be able to think about how their actions relate to others.

Researchers have tested this ability in the past with a mirror recognition task called the “rouge test.” It involves applying red lipstick or blush — or “rouge” as they called it when they created the task in the 1970s — on the baby’s nose.


The researchers then placed the babies in front of a mirror. Babies under 18 months simply smiled at the cute baby in the reflection, showing no evidence that they recognised themselves or the red marks on their faces.

Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers touch their noses and even appear embarrassed, suggesting that they associate the red dot in the mirror with their own face — they have some sense of self.


Another possible explanation for “juvenile experiential amnesia” is that because babies don’t have language in their second year of life, they are unable to form narratives about their lives that can be recalled later. Finally, the hippocampus, the region of the brain primarily responsible for memory, is not fully developed during infancy.


Scientists will continue to study how each of these factors contributes to your inability to remember much, if any, of your life before the age of 2.





Why don’t we remember things that happened in infancy?

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