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The age at which earliest childhood memories fade

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Although infants use their memories to learn new information, few adults can remember events in their lives that happened prior to the age of three. Psychologists at Emory University have now documented that age seven is when these earliest memories tend to fade into oblivion, a phenomenon known as “childhood amnesia.” The study is the first empirical demonstration of the onset of childhood amnesia, and involved interviewing children about past events in their lives. You can check out the abstract of the study, "The onset of childhood amnesia in childhood: A prospective investigation of the course and determinants of forgetting of early-life events," published online in the November 18, 2013 issue of the journal Memory.

The journal Memory published the research, which involved interviewing children about past events in their lives, starting at age three. Different subsets of the group of children were then tested for recall of these events at ages five, six, seven, eight and nine.

“Our study is the first empirical demonstration of the onset of childhood amnesia,” says Emory psychologist Patricia Bauer, who led the study, according to a January 24, 2010 news release by Carol Clark, Psychologists document the age our earliest memories fade. “We actually recorded the memories of children, and then we followed them into the future to track when they forgot these memories.”

The study’s co-author is Marina Larkina, a manager of research projects for Emory’s Department of Psychology. The Bauer Memory Development Lab focuses on how episodic, or autobiographical memory, changes through childhood and early adulthood.

“Knowing how autobiographical memory develops is critically important to understanding ourselves as psychic beings,” Bauer says in the news release. “Remembering yourself in the past is how you know who you are today.”

Scientists have long known, based on interviews with adults, that most people’s earliest memories only go back to about age 3

Sigmund Freud coined the term “childhood amnesia” to describe this loss of memory from the infant years. Using his psychoanalytic theory, Freud made the controversial proposal that people were repressing their earliest memories due to their inappropriate sexual nature.

In recent years, however, growing evidence indicates that, while infants use memory to learn language and make sense of the world around them, they do not yet have the sophisticated neural architecture needed to form and hold onto more complex forms of memory. Instead of relying on interviews with adults, as previous studies of childhood amnesia have done, the Emory researchers wanted to document early autobiographical memory formation, as well as the age of forgetting these memories.

The experiment began by recording 83 children at the age of three, while their mothers or fathers asked them about six events that the children had experienced in recent months, such as a trip to the zoo or a birthday party.

“We asked the parents to speak as they normally would to their children,” Bauer says in the news release. She gives a hypothetical example: “The mother might ask, ‘Remember when we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s for your birthday party?’ She might add, ‘You had pizza, didn’t you?’”

The child might start recounting details of the Chuck E. Cheese experience or divert the conversation by saying something like, “Zoo!”

Some mothers might keep asking about the pizza, while another mother might say, “Okay, we went to the zoo, too. Tell me about that.” Parents who followed a child’s lead in these conversations tended to elicit richer memories from their three-year-olds, Bauer says. “This approach also related to the children having a better memory of the event at a later age.”

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