What Is Childhood Amnesia?

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the phenomena of childhood, or infantile, amnesia. The lesson defines the condition, explains how researchers believe that it happens, and why it is a normal condition every person shares.

What Happens to Early Memories?

Children are amazing for how they grow, how they learn, and the amount they learn from birth to five years of age. According to an article in the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, by the time they are five, children have developed approximately 85% of their 'intellect, personality and skills.' Children are little sponges who are born ready to learn all that their environment has to teach them.

But there is one factor in development that has always puzzled researchers. Although children learn a tremendous amount by a very young age, as they grow they are not able to remember how they acquired the knowledge they have. Childhood amnesia is the inability of the average person to remember anything that happened to them prior to three or four years of age. Although some outliers (people who defy the average statistical model) will retain memories from when they were infants, the majority of people cannot remember events that happened during their earliest years.

The Problem with Recall

It is not the case that what happens before the age of four is unimportant. It is more likely that the brain doesn't yet have the ability to create memories, and individuals have not yet learned the skill of rehearsing memories to make them more permanent and memorable. The human brain is constantly active and is always cataloging memories, but there is a process that it goes through. Throughout the formative years (i.e., most of the growth that takes place prior to age seven) the brain itself is also growing and gaining the ability to do new tasks.

Scientists have been studying the idea of childhood amnesia (sometimes called infantile amnesia) for more than a century and many different theories have been developed to explain the phenomenon. Sigmund Freud believed that it was a repression of trauma during the early psychosexual stages. More recently, researchers have determined that prior to age four, the brain has not yet developed the pathways necessary to link the memories to verbal or visual cues. Thus, though the memories may still be somewhere locked inside the brain, they are not readily accessible.

The Young Brain

Scientists have been able to determine that children younger than seven are able to recall events from their very early childhood if they receive the right prompts. But this ability diminishes over time. For one recent study, researchers tested a group of children who ranged in age from seven to nine years old. These children had previously (years earlier) told the same researchers about events that occurred when they were three. Approximately 60% of the seven-year-olds still retained these memories, but fewer than 40% of the nine-year-olds had the same retention. Thus, the scientists concluded that a large part of the memory loss occurs during the ages of seven to nine. Other researchers have found that children forget rapidly between these two ages, but that memory loss for early events slows precipitously after age nine.

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