Over at Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham has a fascinating discussion of infantile amnesia, which he tantalizingly terms a “myth.” Chris cites research demonstrating that infants can and do remember things, even stories read to them in the womb:
3-day-old infants were capable of distinguishing a particular passage (from Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”) that had been read to them twice daily for the last 6 weeks of gestation from similar passages (matched for word count, length, and prosody). What’s more, these infants preferred the familiar passage even if spoken by someone other than their mother, strongly suggesting that they had encoded (and retained) a relatively high-level representation of the passage’s auditory content.
Wow! But of course, this sounds more like a conditioned response than a “memory” in the everyday sense (though arguably there’s no difference: if we’ve learned something, then it’s a memory, right?). After citing additional research on long-term memory, Chatham reaches a fascinating conclusion:
In summary, there is some reason to believe that the phenomenon of infantile amnesia has been widely mischaracterized. Infants show surprisingly robust long-term memories, and both the explicit and implicit memory systems appear functional very early in life. Based on this evidence, it seems unlikely that retention failure underlies the apparent loss of all early-life experiences. Rather than being completely forgotten, our earliest experiences may actually be mislabeled.
This conclusion is supported by some work we’ve discussed here on CogDaily where toddlers were shown a “magic” machine and then asked about it six months to a year later:
None of the children interviewed used any of the words that they did not know at the time of the original demonstration to describe their memory of the event. Though they clearly could remember the experience, and even showed the experimenters how the machine worked, they didn’t use the proper words for the parts of the machine (“handle,” “knob”) if they hadn’t known them at the time of the original event. The memory existed, but the words were not associated with the memory.
Simcock and Hayne argue that these memories simply are not ever encoded in language, and for that reason, never become part of an adult’s autobiographical memory.
In other words, the memories are there; they just aren’t encoded in a way that makes them easy to retrieve later.