What is YOUR Earliest Memory? Understanding How Memory Develops in Young Children.

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On the flight home, I sat and recalled some of the delightful interactions I’d had over the past several days with my two grandsons. One in particular stood out. As I read the youngest a story for oh, probably the 15th time, we pretended to pluck up cookies, fruits, and other goodies off the pages and pretend to eat them. Later, he sat with the book, repeating this on his own. His older brother saw this and laughed. When I reminded him that he and I did the very same thing just a few years earlier, he had no recollection. It made me think about all the other precious games and little talks we’d had that were also lost and how the ones between his little brother and me would be forgotten, too.

When do we really begin to sock things away into our long-term memory? How far back in childhood can something be remembered? I often ask this question in my child development classes. Many will be quick to answer with an event from middle or high school. But then, I ask them to sit quietly a moment and really think back. One by one, earlier and earlier memories begin to surface- most of them not particularly clear, but memories nonetheless.

For the most part, though, no one, including myself, can remember anything much before age two. Hmmm.

There are a couple fascinating theories about why we have trouble remembering anything any earlier. One involves something called “infantile amnesia.” According to the theory, it isn’t until about 18 months that we begin to develop a sense of self- the understanding that we are separate beings from anyone or anything else. In addition, we are moving from listening to speech to actually verbalizing. Before this time, we are just part of the landscape, part of the big picture. We’re merged with other people and everything that’s part of our surroundings. So, nothing that happens is specifically designated to us in particular and therefore, not stored to memory. As a side note, this theory may also help to explain why sharing is such a struggle for young toddlers. If an 18-month-old sees his environment and what’s in it as part of himself, asking him to give up a toy truck would be much like asking him to take off his arm and share that.

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As my students relate their very early memories, I take notes on what kinds of things they remember…

*Falling off the porch steps

*Watching an older brother break a window

*Touching a hot stove

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Then, we take a look at the list and determine what most of these memories have in common. We can usually conclude that the majority involve something that was either experienced for the first time or was negative or startling. Very few of the memories are positive. Why is that?

According to cognitive researchers, unpleasant, traumatic, or startling, first-time experiences find their way into our long-term memories more often than those of the pleasant, everyday variety. They think this happens due to a type of self-preservation reflex. We remember something unpleasant in order to prevent it from happening again. It may also be that frightening or disturbing events make more of an impact, are more vivid, and are given memory priority.

Researchers also distinguish between two types of memory: declarative (conscious) and semantic (survival). Infants mostly use semantic memory as they interact with caregivers. They remember to cry for their mothers to feed them, for example. There is, however, one particular instance where infants are using declarative memory… the sound of their mother’s voice. They had been picking up on her voice in utero, being the first place their memory absorbs information.

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It isn’t until children reach the age of about six or seven that clear memories are made, when the hippocampus becomes more developed. That part of the brain is responsible for processing long-term memory and the ability to retrieve memories. The brain’s “filing system” is becoming better organized and sequenced than it was in the years previous, when things were scattered here and there, most fuzzy to recall, or difficult to recall at all.

So, little Radley will remember the day he burned his finger on Mommy’s curling iron, but not the afternoon he and I ate pictures of cherries off the storybook pages. I guess his older brother and I will just have to tell him about it someday.

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