Memory, Part 1: Recalling Childhood

All this week on Family Anatomy, Dr. Brian and I will be discussing memory over the life span. From our earliest memories of childhood, to memory issues in our parents and grandparents.

Memory is a very complex phenomenon. Without repetition or meaning, most memories fade away within seconds. If we hear something, for instance, a phone number, and don’t repeat it to ourselves  or provide some meaning or context to it, it will quickly fade away. Similarly, visual material, for instance a series of pictures, will also fade from our memory if not repeatedly viewed or contextualized. However, when we see or hear things and then repeat them to ourselves or provide contextual information, we establish long-term memories. Long-term memories are divided into memory for general information such as knowing that Paris is the capital of France, and autobiographical or “episodic” memory that places us within a specific time and place.

As adults, when we look back to our childhood, there is typically no memory of early events. In fact, researchers have established that children do not develop episodic or autobiographical memory (i.e., a memory of themselves in a specific time and place) until they are approximately 3 1/2 years of age. Psychologists have termed this “childhood amnesia”. If you feel that this is not true of you since you have clear memories prior to 3 1/2 years of age, it is likely that these memories were created by parents or other adults who repeated stories to you from your early childhood. Thus, you don’t really have a memory of the original event, rather you have a verbal memory that you retained through adult storytelling. This can be a difficult truth for parents as the first 3 1/2 years of life can be exhilarating, stressful, magical, and frustrating. In other words, memorable. For children, on the other hand, these early experiences are no longer accessible.

Looked at in a different way, this can be seen as an opportunity for parents to teach their children important lessons about life. That is, if the only memories we have prior to 3 1/2 years of age are ones created by the repeated storytelling of our parents, then the stories we choose to tell our own children about these early years can convey to them the things that we think are important and memorable about life in general.

Researchers note that parents provide an important support for children’s developing memory functions. When children begin to recount their past experiences, parents typically provide “scaffolding” in order to help them with details, sequencing of events, and a sense of place and time. In fact, research has shown that parents who provide rich, emotional detail through “joint reminiscing” have children who grow up to tell stories in much the same way. This is significant in that this personal or “episodic memory” helps us know ourselves and helps others know us. Women appear to be better in this respect than men and this may be reflected in the fact that female toddlers’ episodic memory develops approximately 6 month before their male counterparts.

Tell us about your childhood memories. When was your first memory? Did your parents help to form it?

Tune in tomorrow when we will be posting our interview with world renowned psychologist and memory researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.

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