Young children can remember their earliest years, but cannot recall most of them later on, Canadian researchers revealed in the journal Child Development. The majority of adults cannot remember anything about their lives before they were three or four years old.

The findings from this study defy the notion that very young kids do not develop memories. Apparently they do, but those memories gradually fade away. Many experts had suggested that before the age of three, for example, children do not have the language skills or cognitive capacity to process and store memories.

The researchers of this study say this is not the case, because very young children can recall things a long way back.

Researchers from the Memorial University of Newfoundland interviewed 100 kids aged 4 to 13 years. They were asked how far back they could remember events in their lives. The younger ones were able to go as far back as when they were just 18 months old.

Parents were interviewed separately to make sure they were not false memories.

The same children were interviewed again 24 months later and asked about three of the earliest recollections they had mentioned in their first interview. They found that the younger kids remembered different things from their first encounter with the researchers. Even when prompted, they did not appear to have any recollection of those earliest memories.

The authors say our earliest memories change over time and are replaced with newer earliest memories when we are about ten years old.

Lead author, Dr Carole Peterson, said that in the second interviews detailed cues would be given to the children to help jog their memories, but they would respond that those things had never happened to them.

In contrast with the younger children, a third of the kids aged ten to thirteen described the same memories during their first and second interviews.

Dr. Patricia Bauer, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, believes our brains encode earlier memories differently to older ones, hence their disappearance.

Our cultural environment might also play a role in how we remember things as kids. The study included Canadian and Chinese children. The earliest memories of the Chinese children were generally at least a year later than the Canadian children’s. The authors believe it is because children-parent conversations in Western cultures are more autobiographical – children ask their parents lots of questions about their earlier experiences, or parents offer them without being prompted. This happens less frequently in a child-parent relationship in Chinese culture.

“Infantile Amnesia Across the Years: A 2-Year Follow-up of Children’s Earliest Memories”
Carole Peterson, Kelly L. Warren, Megan M. Short
Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01597.x

Written by Christian Nordqvist