Cognitive Childhood Amnesia

Empirical Research Article –

Infantile or childhood amnesia is the inability in adulthood to remember experiences that occurred in childhood, typically from birth to three years of age. Recollections of memories tend to be sparse for experiences prior to the age of 10. Childhood amnesia is therefore the forgetting of early life experiences and events which cannot be accounted for by normal rates of forgetting. Cognitive approaches in psychology have identified several mechanisms and processes to explain how people could forget early childhood experiences. In this essay, various cognitive theories for childhood amnesia will be critically evaluated, drawing on evidence from empirical research. The cognitive theories of childhood amnesia include encoding deficits, encoding specificity, and the retrieval failure hypotheses.

 The encoding deficit hypothesis is arguably the simplest cognitive theory for childhood amnesia. This theory proposes that there is a deficit in the initial processes of experiences and encoding of memories. This theory is supported by indirect research which has found that preschool aged children do not attend to features of stimuli that make retrieval easier. They, therefore, encode attributes of their experiences less effectively than adults do. Craik and Lockhart (1972) proposed that active processing of stimuli is required for successful recall, which involves learning between sounds or objects and their meanings, which are then encoded and stored in memory. If active processing of information is required for successful recall, then children may not have developed cognitive ability or structures to form efficiently rich and detailed memory traces.

 This is reflected in research finding that children recognise fewer actions depicted in books and technology than they do following face-to-face interactions. This research supports the ideology that information is less extensively and efficiently encoded by children in comparison to adults, as they have a deficit in encoding meaning, accounting for the decreased ability to recall childhood events and experiences. Children may therefore encode experiences in a less schematic approach in comparison to adults so memories decay more rapidly or are more susceptible to interferences. This theory of childhood amnesia, however, is based on indirect research which does not test encoding directly. Thus, childhood amnesia could be caused by an untested extraneous variable or factor.

 A further explanation of childhood amnesia is encoding specificity, which is related to the discrepancies between contexts and situational circumstances at the time of encoding and retrieval. Changes in contextual circumstances can be internal, related to mental capacity, emotional status and mindset, or external due to environmental settings. Changes in contexts that occur during the retention process makes retrieval cues less accessible, so recall is more difficult.

 This cognitive theory for childhood amnesia is derived from the encoding specificity concept, which suggests that what is encoded into storage determines the retrieval cues that are effective in providing access to stored information. A possible explanation is that retrieval cues used by adults are not effective for retrieving childhood memories. Alternatively, it has been proposed that childhood memories are difficult to retrieve in adulthood unless people can reinstate the original context from childhood in which memories were stored. This theory suggests that memories remain retrievable from storage, but retrieval is dependent on the context being reinstated. Children develop rapidly, so contextual state changes, which makes memories inaccessible for retrieval.

 This encoding specificity theory for childhood amnesia, however, lacks empirical support and requires further research to support the ideology that contextual changes occur in childhood, which do not exist for later life. One recent study has investigated early memories and encoding specificity by presenting unique events to 3-year-old children that were associated with either a red metal or grey plastic box. A week later, their memory of the event was tested either in the same of different room, where findings indicated that changing the context for retrieval did not alter the ability to retrieve the event. These findings do not support the ideology of the encoding specificity hypothesis. This change in context, however, was external and does not assess the change in development of internal contexts in children, which warrants further research. The time between encoding and retrieval was, additionally, short in Sonne and colleagues’ (2019) study, so findings cannot be generalised to childhood amnesia which is experienced over the long course from childhood to adulthood.

 Certain development and maturational processes and environmental changes in childhood can have adverse influences on retrieval due to discontinuation. These processes and events include birth of siblings, language acquisition, onset of nursery and schooling, and moving homes. The cognitive principles of state-dependent retrieval suggest that continuities in childhood should facilitate recall, whilst discontinuities increase retrieval failure and forgetting. Cognitive and social discontinuity theories  propose that childhood amnesia occurs because of the change in cognitive schemata throughout development, towards modes of thought in adulthood. These theories do not account for all recollection of childhood memory, however, as Usher and Neisser (1993) found that the earliest age of recall was two years for hospitalisation and birth of a sibling, and three years for experiencing death and house moves. Thus, some childhood memories are accessible from earlier in childhood, with individual differences in recall and experiences of childhood amnesia.

 These differences could be explained by cognitive changes that take place during development between the ages of six and eight, as these have been suggested to create new schema that can interfere with the recall of all previous memories.Schema are cognitive structures which organise knowledge to guide cognition and behaviour. Processes in maturational development and social factors influence the recall of childhood memories.

 Neisser and Fivush (1999) highlighted that socialisation in childhood is abrupt in Western culture, due to the onset of nursery or school. This could cause a rapid and wide discontinuity in cognitive schemas which were previously used in cognition. These findings have practical application, as they suggest that if environmental changes in childhood and resulting cognitive changes were to begin earlier, people would experience a shorter period of childhood amnesia. Thus, if Western culture had less stringent social and educational demands that permitted, for example, greater daydreaming and reflection of our childhood during the day, then these memories might be better retrieved by remaining more accessible. Greater continuity during development in childhood is therefore expected to reduce contextual changes and prevent retrieval failure.

 Childhood amnesia being related to retrieval failure is explored in the cognitive theory of the reminiscence bump. The reminiscence bump is an observed phenomena in autobiographical memory, which depicts the tendency for people to retrieve memories from approximately 10 to 30 years of age. An explanation for this is that prior to the age of 10, children do not have integrated life narratives or life story schema. These cognitive constructs develop later into adolescence. The formation of self-identity could therefore account for early childhood amnesia because of a motivated retrieval failure.

 White and Pillemer (1979) proposed that memories from childhood have been stored and are available for retrieval in adulthood, however, they do not have the motivation to retrieve them. This compliments Freud’s blockages theory (1905/1949), suggesting repressed memories brought into conscious awareness could increase anxiety and motivation for retrieval is absent. The mechanism by which emotions cause motivated retrieval failure should however be distinguished from the processes in which emotions cause forgetting. Freud’s theory of repression (1905/1949), however, does not account for all childhood amnesia as some people cannot recall experiences even if they were positive. Freud’s theory only provides an explanation for memories that cannot be recalled due to trauma or those that will elicit negative affect. Hayne and Jack (2011) rejected Freud’s repression explanation for childhood amnesia and argued that instead, a holistic theory of childhood amnesia requires consideration of cognitive, neurological and social development.

 Understanding childhood amnesia requires knowledge about the development of autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory refers to personal history and memories relevant to the self. Various individual differences that influence childhood amnesia are gender, culture, ethnicity, birth order, personality, social interaction and different parenting styles.

 Cognitive explanations cannot account for or explain all aspects and differences in childhood amnesia, as females recall more memories from childhood than males and personality traits relate to autobiographical memory. One could speculate that females are more verbal in interactions, thus increasing the likelihood of retrieving childhood memories because of the link between language development and childhood amnesia. Caci and colleagues (2019) found that the extraversion and openness personality traits were positive predictors of social functions of autobiographical memory, whereas the neuroticism personality trait predicted self-functions, and the conscientiousness trait was related to autobiographical memory. This study suggests that there are vast individual differences in personality and motivations for using autobiographical memory for self-continuity and social interaction. As childhood amnesia is modifiable by environmental experiences, such as parenting styles and children’s self-recognition, these findings indicate that childhood amnesia is not innately biological and must be determined by other cognitive or social influences.

 More recently, theories have emphasised that a combination of social-cultural-linguistic factors and neurological changes throughout the lifespan contribute to childhood amnesia. Language typically becomes a fully developing system from the ages of two to three, which has an influential effect on the accessibility of memories, suggesting they are verbally accessible. Simcock and Hayne (2002) presented a unique event to children, where their memory was assessed 6 or 12 months later. They found no instances where children verbally reported information about the event that was not part of their vocabulary at the time of the event at encoding. Thus, these findings suggest that language development has a pivotal role in childhood amnesia. Moreover, language development provides a novel range of linguistic interactions with other people, especially sharing experiences and memories with parents. This sharing of memories could have important consequences for the accessibility of information and memories from childhood. These findings, however, do not consider how parental perceptions and sharing of memories could influence recall. It may not be people’s own memories being recalled, but the memories and perceptions of others that they have been told about.

 Emerging language abilities also have a complex interaction between self-development and the development of self-identity. This is because social interactions with others can be influenced by cultural values, beliefs and practices to either facilitate or impede the accessibility of memories in early childhood (Wang, 2003). Researchers have therefore debated that the phenomenon of childhood amnesia is culture specific rather than universal.

 Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated that cultures varying in political-economic system and cultural-historical-religious traditions, have an important role in causing the length and severity of childhood amnesia. Western society emphasises the important of self-identity, autonomy and individuality, where people’s memories and personal experiences have an important role in developing one’s personal identity.  In contract, there is far less motivation for self enhancement in Asian culture, where people are motivated to esteem their cultural groups rather than the self. This view of self is believed to impact childhood amnesia, as less importance is placed on retrieving personal memories and history in some cultures, with greater emphasis in others.

 In conclusion, most adults have problems recalling events from their early years of life. Research has investigated potential explanations for this experience of childhood amnesia, including encoding deficits, encoding specificity, and the retrieval failure hypotheses. These theories suggest changes experienced through development, whether cognitive, biological or environmental, contribute to childhood amnesia. Thus, it is most likely that an array of factors, such as gender, personality, social experiences and language development influence childhood amnesia and the ability to recall memories.


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