Developing Intelligence

Infantile “amnesia” refers to the apparent absence or weakness of memories formed at ages younger than 3 or 4. Some evidence indicates that these early-life memories are not actually lost or forgotten, but are rather merely mislabeled or otherwise inaccessible to adult cognition. One potential reason for this inaccessibility is that adults tend to use language in encoding and retrieving memories, and this strategy may not be sufficient for retrieving memories formed in early-life, which may have been encoded before language is firmly entrenched in the developing brain. A recent study in Child Development may challenge this hypothesis, as described below.

In “Fragile But Real: Children’s Capacity to Use Newly Acquired Words to Convey Preverbal Memories,” authors Morris & Baker-Ward brought a remote-controlled bubble machine with six colors of bubble mixture to several preschools, tested children on their knowledge of color names, and then told children that the machine would only work when a particular color was used (the experimenters pointed to, but did not name, this color of soap).

Over the course of two days, 80 two-year-olds individually interacted with the bubble machine, pouring differently colored bubble soaps into the machine. The experimenters surreptitiously activated the machine only when the correct color soap was added. The experimenters returned to each preschool once per week for the following 8 weeks to play a color naming game with each class for about 1 hour each time. Then, at the end of this 2 month delay period, children were tested on their color knowledge and then asked which color had activated the bubble machine 2 months ago. From each child, the experimenters collected a verbal response, a pointing response (in which children pointed to a color on a color chart) and a functional response (in which children were asked to add the correct color soap to the bubble machine).

The results showed that even children who did not know their color words at the time of the bubble machine experience were able to name the target color 2 months later, and they did so significantly more often than would be expected by chance alone. At least in this case, it seems that preverbal experience is accessible with words several months later, at least in the presence of adequate contextual support (the bubble machine and colored bubble soaps were visible at the time of the test). Yet three-quarters of these children were not able to successfully name the target color even though they could point to it, suggesting that for a majority of children these preverbal experiences are not recoded verbally.

The authors suggest that this work challenges interpretations of childhood and infantile amnesia pointing to failures to translate preverbal experiences into language once language is acquired. Yet the fact that three-quarters of children fail to do this, even in the presence of physical reminders of the original experience, seems to support this claim rather than undermine it. Perhaps some children can recode these preverbal memories into language when prompted, but children may still not due this under real-world circumstances and thus experience childhood “amnesia.”

What these results do clearly demonstrate is that experience can be coded in a non-linguistic form, and that recoding into language is possible, at least over short delays. The nature of these non- or sub-linguistic representations is unclear, as are the mechanisms which allow recoding of those representations into language and their sensitivity to decay. Nonetheless, Morris & Baker-Ward have provided fascinating evidence that the world of preverbal experience is not necessarily completely lost to language-capable cognition.

Comments

  1. #1 speedwell
    September 26, 2007

    How interesting that they used color for this. My earliest memory was of lying in a stroller in the back yard, and I noticed that there was something in common between the color of the stroller and the color of the sky. I told my mom about that when I was about 20, and she told me, “We got rid of that blue stroller when you were less than a year old.”

  2. #2 Kevembuangga
    September 27, 2007

    The nature of these non- or sub-linguistic representations is unclear, as are the mechanisms which allow recoding of those representations into language and their sensitivity to decay.

    I find this a strange remark, do you mean that you believe that memory is dependent on linguistic ability?
    In other words, that memory is built upon some “ontologies” and that without such parsing of experience into concepts we couldn’t remember?

  3. #3 CHCh
    September 27, 2007

    Thanks for the comments. Kevem, whenever you stop by I know I’ve got some more thinking to do ;)

    I should probably revise that phrase, because I don’t believe that memory is crucially dependent on language or linguistic ontologies, though I definitely see why you might think I meant that.

    I should have said that preverbal memories which are not retrieved soon after language is learned may ultimately become inaccessible as cognition becomes increasingly reliant on linguistic processes in everyday life over the course of development. The mechanisms that might be involved in this process of accessing preverbal memories, or alternatively their decay, are unclear.

    One way of getting data on this would be to examine episodic recall performance where both encoding and retrieval are fully crossed with articulatory suppression vs. some control dual task.

    Or did i just dig myself a deeper hole?

  4. #4 EdwardShaw
    September 27, 2007

    The late German/Jewish author Jurek Becker survived the Holocaust, but lost most of his memories. Though he couldn’t prove it, he believed it was because his first language had been Polish, but after resettling in East Germany at around 8 years old, he spoke only German. He had no recollection of the language he spoke well enough until that age and almost none of the memories of that period, either.

    Similarly, I once had a 35 year old student in my German class who relocated to the U.S. around the same age (maybe a little older) and he confessed that he remembered nothing of the language and very little of his life at that time.

  5. #5 Gregory Conen
    September 28, 2007

    The difficulty with language-based theories of infantile amnesia is people who only acquire language later in life appear to retain at least some memories.
    Susan Schaller recounts Ildefonso recalling, with some detail, events that occurred well before he learned language.
    It would be interesting to see a study dealing with children with actual language delays (e.g. deaf children of hearing parents).

  6. #6 Edward Shaw
    September 28, 2007

    I don’t doubt that memories are made using any number of stimuli. Animals don’t have language, but they do have memory. However, language permits narrative and thus contextualization and integration of experiences that weave sensate memory into coginitive-based memory, giving them more resonnance than they would otherwise have. Traumatic events stick because of the profound emotions they trigger. A poiniant statement sticks because of the emotions it evokes.

  7. #7 Hopeful
    September 28, 2007

    Is this 500,000?

  8. #8 geciktirici
    December 23, 2007

    One way of getting data on this would be to examine episodic recall performance where both encoding and retrieval are fully crossed with articulatory suppression

  9. #9 greg
    December 31, 2007

    It would be interesting to see a study dealing with children with actual language delays

  10. #10 Lyn
    December 19, 2010

    I have a number of very early memories from my first year of life and subsequent years. Moreover, I remember making it a point to remember them because I knew that when I got older I would otherwise forget. This determination was repeated to myself as language developed. I would be interested in finding others who have had a similar experience.

  11. #11 LİVCON
    April 27, 2011

    One way of getting data on this would be to examine episodic recall performance where both encoding and retrieval are fully crossed with articulatory suppression vs. some control dual task.

  12. #12 climatiseur supra
    October 1, 2011

    Seems your web site doesnt display correctly using a Samsung Nexus S. Are any other visitors having the same exact difficulty ?

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