The term ‘infantile amnesia’ refers to the inability of adults to retain and recall information from events in the early years of their childhood. Infantile amnesia does not account for all memories, but the lack of memories throughout childhood. Research on memories and free recall studies found that people find it difficult to remember events before the average age of 3.5 years. Although research has shown that children do remember events at the time, these are lost later in life. This can be influenced by personal experiences and cultural factors. There are many explanations for this phenomenon which will be discussed further, some more accountable than others.
The first and most famous explanation was developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th Century as cited in Baddeley, A. D., Eysenck, M.W., Anderson, M. C. (2009). He argued that infantile amnesia occurs through ‘repression’, when negative thoughts and experiences are too traumatic to stay in the conscious mind, they are pushed and repressed into the unconscious mind. These early memories require filtering and take the form of more innocuous memories (screen memories). However, there is no evidence to support his theory. It has been criticised for failing to account for the positive and neutral events from early childhood that adults cannot remember. Such memories can not be subject to repression. Therefore this explanation fails to fully account for infantile amnesia.
A modern attempt to explain infantile amnesia derives from Howe and Courage’s (1997) theoretical approach of the cognitive self. They proposed that infants can only form autobiographical (event specific) memories after they’ve developed a sense of self, which is necessary for them to build enduring personal memories of events. They found that the infant develops their sense of self towards the end of age 2. This is supported by Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1979) as cited in Baddeley, A. D., Eysenck, M.W., Anderson, M. C. (2009), who carried out a study where infants had a red spot applied to their nose and were presented infront of a mirror. The infants that were able to recognise themselves and reach for their own nose given they had a red spot, were shown to have some self awareness. They found that almost no infants aged 1 or under showed any signs of self awareness, whereas 70% of infants aged 21-24 months did. However, this fails to explain why it is that children aged 2 and 3 can form autobiographical memories but forget them during adulthood. Howe and Courage (1997) claimed that memories are more likely to be remembered for longer if they are rehearsed, however children do not constantly rehearse events or information.
A more obvious explanation would be that infants are incapable of forming long term memories. However, this is not the case. Research has shown that people form long term memories before they are born. For example, new born babies recognise their mother’s voice at birth and breastfed babies recognise their mothers smell after 1 week (DeCasper and Fifer, 1980).
However, a distinction between the memory systems in infants may need to be understood for this phenomenon; recognition and recall memory. Recognition memory refers to the ability to correctly identify something that has been seen/occurred before, whereas recall memory is the ability to recall something from the memory. Piaget found that young infants could recognise familiar faces and toys but could not recall these memories. This related to Moscovitch (1984) as cited in Baddeley, A. D., Eysenck, M.W., Anderson, M. C. (2009), who proposed that infants have a procedural memory and not a declarative one (conscious recollection). Given this, it could be that young infants have similar memory systems to those in extreme amnesiacs. If this is the case, it could provide strong evidence for infantile amnesia.
One important contribution to the development of infantile amnesia is the use of linguistics. Language is a vital process in communicating our memories and thoughts. As infants, our language is limited which makes it difficult to comprehend and express our experiences. The offset of infantile amnesia corresponds to an era of increased language development (Fenson et al., 1994). Given that infants are able to form long term memories, raises the question as to whether they can translate preverbal memories into language. It has been proven that the language skills available to children at the time of the event determine what they can recollect from the event. Simcock and Hayne (2002) asked 2-3 year old asked children to report the experience of complex-play up to 12 months later. Language was assessed at both times, and memory was assessed both verbally and nonverbally. When reporting play, the infants used words only known to them at the time. This provides evidence for the finding that although throughout the 12 months they learnt new words, they could only recall the experience with the words known to them at the time. Therefore it may not be possible to translate early nonverbal memories into verbal form and may partially explain infantile amnesia. However research is limited to clarify this conclusion.
The explanation of linguistics led to the development of two modern theories which are used to explain this phenomenon and the development of autobiographical memory; the existence of language and cultural factors. According to the social cultural developmental theory (e.g. Fivush & Nelson, 2004), culture and language play key roles in the development of autobiographical memories. As mentioned earlier, as infants, language is not quite developed which makes it difficult to express experiences later on. There are different factors that could effect this concept. Firstly, the use of the parent’s language is important at the time of the event and discussing it after. Nelson (1989) as cited in Baddeley, A. D., Eysenck, M.W., Anderson, M. C. (2009), observed the interactions between mother and child whilst exploring a museum. He identified two types of interaction; ‘freely interacting’ and ‘practical’ interaction. The first type involved the mother reminiscing and relating what was seen in the museum to past experiences and sharing these with the child. The second type involved the mother asking questions such as ‘what do you think this is for?’ A week later they were tested for their remembrance of the visit. The mother-child that freely interacted answered 13 out of 30 questions correctly, whereas the practical group only answered 5. Thus, the mothers who adopted the more elaborated reminiscing style increased their child’s ability to remember and talk about the past as opposed to those who did not adopt this approach. This demonstrates how the mothers reminiscing style is an important factor in developing infantile amnesia depending on whether it develops the autobiographical memory
This leads to important cultural differences that could also affect this phenomenon. Research has found that mothers from Western cultures speak more emotionally about their past than mothers from Eastern cultures (Leichtman, Wang & Pillemer, 2003). This would provide rehearsal opportunities for the children whose mothers talk about their past, thus developing the autobiographical memory. This is supported by cross-cultural research which suggests that adults from Eastern cultures have a later age of their first autobiographical memory than those from Western cultures. (Pillemer, 1998). Also, studies comparing native and overseas Asians & European, with European American adults found that the latter are able to access childhood memories earlier and remember a greater number of them with more specific details (Wang, 2001a, Wang & Conway, 2004). The cultural differences presented in memory accessibility and elaborations are qualified to different self-perceptions and varied parental reminiscing styles across cultures (Wang, 2003). However, both theories should not be viewed as mutually exclusive as they can be influenced by each other.
The relatively recent discovery that memory involves different processes, led to the idea that infantile amnesia may be due to a dysfunctional memory system during early childhood (Bachevalier & Mishkin, 1984 as cited in Gunnar, R. M., & Nelson, A. C. (1992). Researchers have questioned whether infants lack the neurological equipment needed for memory formation and storage. For example, in newborn babies, the hippocampus and frontal lobes are immature, which are areas of the brain that are involved in the formation of new memories and long-term memory. Therefore they are incapable of encoding and storing these memories from childhood which provides an explanation for infantile amnesia during adulthood.
The explanations stated above are only a few of many others. Other explanations include differences in gender, general advances in cognitive skills (Neisser, 1962), the development of a new memory system between the ages 3 to 4 (Pillemer & White, 1989) and underdeveloped schemas.
In conclusion, although infantile amnesia has been in existence for a long time, it has been proven to be a difficult topic of study. The accuracy of the memories in adulthood from childhood is questionable, given that they are trying to recall event from several years ago. Although almost all the explanations are supporting the existence of infantile amnesia, research is quite limited for each and some explanations overlap and combine with others. For example, the development of autobiographical memory in infants is dependable on their self concept, which is heavily influenced by other factors such as language, social factors and cultural factors.