Childhood Amnesia: When Our Earliest Memories Fade Away

First Posted: Jan 24, 2014 03:17 PM EST

Our childhood memories begin to fade away by the time our seventh birthday rolls around, according to psychologists at Emory University. The loss of these memories is known as "childhood amnesia."

The journal Memory published this new discovery in November of 2013. The documentation involved interviewing children about events in their lives starting at the age of three. Children ranging from ages five to nine made up the sample pool in an attempt to diversify the study.

Patricia Bauer, a psychologist at Emory University, led the study that is the "first empirical demonstration of the onset of childhood amnesia."

"We actually recorded the memories of children, and then we followed them into the future to track when they forgot those memories," Bauer told eScienceCommons.

Scientists have long known that most people's memories only date as far back as the age of three. Infants employ memory to use language and make sense of the world around them. That said, infants simply don't have the capacity to form and capture complex memories.

Despite already knowing that memories before the age of three fade away, this study aimed to chronicle autobiographical memory formation and at what age such memories were forgotten.

In the experiment, the parents of the three-year-old children were asked to talk to their offspring as they normally would, while asking them questions that might elicit the autobiographical memories. In the end, the researchers found that parents who followed their child's lead in the conversation were able to unearth more memories, since the children tended to go off topic when asked a certain question.

After documenting these memories that the children recalled, the researchers followed up with them years later. The children were asked to elaborate on the past memories that they originally told the researchers. The children between the ages of five to seven were able to recall 63% to 72% of the events and the children who were ages eight to nine only remembered 35%.

But perhaps what was most interesting about the study was that the five to seven-year-old children remembered a higher percentage of events, but their recollection was less complete. And on the flip side, the older children (ages eight to nine) remembered fewer events, but described a more complete documentation of the memory.

Bauer's next study will focus on the age that people acquire an adult memory system.

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