Where did all the memories go?

What’s your earliest memory? If you’re an adult, it’s unlikely to be from before you were three and half to four years old. So what happens to your memories from before that age? It’s not that you never had any: two and three-year-olds gladly talk about events from over a year ago, suggesting these earlier events were once encoded in verbally-accessible long-term memory.

Carole Peterson and colleagues at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada wondered at what age these earlier memories become inaccessible. Perhaps younger children have access to earlier memories than teenagers and adults do. So they asked 128 children and teenagers aged from six to nineteen about their earliest memory.

They found children aged six to nine years had earlier first memories (from when they were about three) than the older children and teenagers, but that beyond age 10 there was no difference: a typical 10-year-old’s first memory was no earlier than a typical 19-year-old’s, usually being from when they were around three and half to four years old. So what happens to these earlier memories when children reach the age of ten? Peterson and colleagues don’t have the answer: “…this report adds to the paradox”, they said “…children are able to verbally retrieve memories from a period of their lives to which they later have little or no verbal access”.

Another finding that surprised the researchers was that the content of the children’s earliest memories was similar regardless of their current age – usually a snapshot of an individual experience, rather than a more detailed story. Children from more collectivist cultures would probably recount more group-based early memories, they said.

They also found, contrary to earlier research, that most of the children’s earliest memories were emotionally neutral. However, girls were more likely than boys to recall an emotional memory, the latter tending to recall events surrounding play.

Peterson, C., Grant, V.V. & Boland, L.D. (2005). Childhood amnesia in children and adolescents: Their earliest memories. Memory, 13, 622-637.
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