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Memory Development Across the Life Span

In this course, we have focused mostly on memory as studied in adults with and without brain damage.  But memory, like other cognitive functions, develops.  Accordingly, it is important to understand how adult memory got that way, and what memory is like at other points in mental development.  Two such points are particularly interesting: infancy and old age.

First, let's discuss memory in infancy and childhood, beginning with the role that memory plays in theories of cognitive development.


The Piagetian Perspective

And let's begin that discussion with a thumbnail sketch of the history of the very idea of psychological development, with special reference to the role that memory plays in developmental theory.

In the first phase of psychological theorizing, the developing child was construed as little more than -- how shall I put it? -- a short, stupid adult.  Development was largely a matter of growth.  There was a great deal of continuity between childhood and adulthood, and a general assumption that the child grows more intelligent as he or she grows up.  This viewpoint is epitomized by Binet's notion of the mental age, and the assumption that the average child has a mental age equivalent to his or her chronological age.  But mental age was assessed mostly in terms of reasoning and problem-solving.  Memory played a relatively small role in intelligence testing.

Then came the Piagetian revolution, and the assumption that development was marked by discontinuities: qualitative, not merely quantitative, changes in cognitive function, yielding the developmental stages of sensory-motor intelligence, the pre-operational period, concrete operations, and formal operations.  The transition between sensory-motor intelligence and the pre-operational period is of particular interest here, because it is based on the development of memory.

Piaget measured object permanence with the A, not B Task.
At the pre-operational stage, which Piaget thought was consolidated by roughly age 2, the child starts dealing with representations, not just sensations.  Mental representations are symbols, which stand for things without being identical to them.  He is now beginning to think symbolically -- he is now beginning to operate on the basis of knowledge and memory.  

The acquisition of representational thought begins the pre-operational stage of cognitive development.  But the child does not yet relate these representations to each other.  As someone put it, the child has "exchanged the chaos of unrelated sensory experiences for the chaos of unrelated mental representations".

Once the child has developed the ability to hold mental representations of objects, he can begin to manipulate them, thus moving beyond the pre-operational stage. 

Expertise, Metamemory, and the Theory of Mind

Piaget's theory of cognitive development was very influential, but it has a lot of problems.

To see some of these problems, let's return to the A, Not B Task, as Adele Diamond did (Diamond, 1985; Diamond, and Rakic, 1989 ) did.  As Piaget observed, a 6-month-old child will search Location A, not Location B; but s/he'll also look at Location B.  The child seems to know, at some level, that there's something special about B, but somehow can't help searching A.  Diamond concluded that the lack of object permanence doesn't reflect memory so much as coordinating action with knowledge -- and especially a failure to inhibit previously established action patterns.  They further speculated that this behavior was a product of immature frontal-lobe development (it is known that monkeys with prefrontal lesions can't do the A, Not B Task).

Similarly, Resnick gave children three choices in a variant of the A, Not B Task (call it the A, not B or C Task).  When the child failed to find the object at A, she was given a second choice.  The children then went for B, not C.

These aspects of the infant's performance can be viewed from the perspective of an alternative, non-Piagetian view of the child as a limited-capacity information processor.  According to this view the child has lots of cognitive abilities in primitive form, but also an extremely limited capacity to process information which leads to performance deficits on tasks like A Not B.  This information-processing capacity increases with maturation -- including, perhaps, maturation of the prefrontal cortex (which we know is specialized for working memory).

                (47157 bytes)Along these lines, we know that memory span progressively increases over the years of early childhood (e.g., Case, 1978).




Put another way, the young child is a novice in various domains.  S/he possesses knowledge and abilities in primitive form, and acquires more knowledge and ability with experience - -subject to the limitations imposed by cognitive capacity.  Adults, by contrast, are experts in lots of domains -- they have lots of what has been called cognitive capital.  

Yes, in some ways, this view represents a return to the theory of the child as a short, stupid adult, where the differences between child and adult cognition are quantitative, not qualitative.

                (42612 bytes)Anyway, Clustering.JPG
                (46564 bytes)these novice-expert differences are apparent in memory.  Adults have lots of strategies for learning and remembering, as exemplified by elaborative and organizational activity at the time of encoding.  Young children just don't employ such strategies as elaborative rehearsal and clustering.



Considerations such as this led John Flavell and others to propose that memory development entails the development of metamemory -- that is, knowledge about memory.  This meta-memorial knowledge comes in two forms:

According to this view, young children do not perform poorly on memory tasks because they don't have memories, or because they lack information-processing capacity.  Rather, they perform poorly in part because they don't have the requisite world-knowledge (which would, for example, support category clustering); and also in pat because they don't use the knowledge they have.  

Metamemory is a topic in a broader approach known as the theory of mind view of cognitive development.  A theory of mind has to do with an organism's appreciation of its own and others' mental lives. 

  • Just as we possess knowledge and beliefs, feelings and desires, so other people do, too.
  • Our behavior is caused by these beliefs.
  • The beliefs can be true or false.
  • Other people can have beliefs that are different from our own. 
    • These differences account for differences in behavior.
    • Appreciation of these differences in belief is necessary for properly functioning social interactions
The child's acquisition of a theory of mind is typically assessed with some version of the false belief task.

In some ways, this is what Piaget had in mind with his concept of egocentrism.

The acquisition of a theory of mind represents a qualitative, not merely quantitative shift in thinking, because with a theory of mind the developing child comes to perceive herself and the world in a whole new way.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the full-scale theory of mind, interest in memory and metamemory declined precipitously.  Still, we can summarize what the theory of mind has to say about memory.

  • Memories represent knowledge and beliefs about the past. 
    • This knowledge may be accurate or not, and our beliefs may be true or false.
  • Other people may have different memories of the same events. 
    • Their memories may also be true or false.
  • Memory is something that can be controlled, by understanding how encoding and retrieval processes work.

Viewed from this perspective, memory is no less a cognitive achievement than any other aspect of cognitive development.


Infantile and Childhood Amnesia

Among the most interesting and puzzling aspects of memory development is infantile and childhood amnesia -- a phenomenon known at least since the time of Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1899).  Infantile and childhood amnesia consists in two facts:

  • An adult's earliest recollection of childhood is typically dated between the 3rd and 5th birthdays.
  • A more or less continuous record of autobiographical memory does not begin until the 5th or 7th year of age.
Technically, infantile amnesia covers birth to age 2; childhood amnesia covers ages 2-7.  Infantile and childhood is ubiquitous, and ties the experimental study of memory to both developmental psychology and the study of memory "in the real world".

Waldfogel.JPG (49738 bytes)Here's an early example, from a study in which Waldfogel (1948) asked college-student subjects to write down every one of their memories from the first 8 years of their lives -- and then asked them to repeat the task 1 week later.  Interestingly, Waldfogel obtained only about 50% overlap between the two sets of memories -- a nice example of inter-trial forgetting and recovery.  But the most important fact was that very few of these memories were from before age 5.


KihlHarack.JPG (48514 bytes)A more direct approach was employed by Kihlstrom and Harackiewicz (1982), who simply asked high-school and college students to write down "your earliest recollection from childhood", with the proviso that the memory be a personal recollection -- not something that the subject knew about him- or herself from other people.  The subjects were also asked to date their memories to the nearest birthday.  The modal memory was drawn from the fourth year of life, between the 3rd and 4th birthdays.


Infantile and childhood is as mysterious as it is ubiquitous, with lots and lots of theories offered over the years to explain the phenomenon.  All of these, naturally, boil down to three basic ideas: impaired encoding, impaired storage, or impaired retrieval (so far as memory goes, what other explanations could there be?).

For an interesting perspective on infantile and childhood amnesia, see "What Will My Son Remember of this Horrible Year?" by Alejandro Zambra, written about his three-yera-old son as the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, and the "lockdowns" and social isolation, was coming to an end.

Impaired Storage Processes

Of all the theories, the most boring simply invokes the retention intervals involved.  It's a long time from infancy and early childhood to adulthood, and those early memories might be lost due simply to the operation of the time-dependency principle.

But just because it's boring doesn't mean that it's not correct.  Unfortunately, even the simplest test of the storage hypothesis has never been done.  For those who would like to do it, it requires a comparison of two groups:

  • Group 1, aged 23 years, tries to remember events from age 3.
  • Group 2, aged 43 years, tries to remember events from age 23.
You get the idea: control the retention interval, to see if there's anything special about the memory loss associated with the memories of infancy and early childhood.  Never been done.

Of course, as noted in the lectures on Storage, time isn't a psychological variable, so even if it turned out that infantile amnesia were "merely" a product of the retention interval, it still might be the case that the mechanism underlying time-dependency in the two cases is different.  For example, infantile amnesia might reflect decay or displacement, while adult forgetting might reflect interference.  So, the hypothesis isn't completely boring.  But in any event, nobody has ever considered it seriously.

Impaired Retrieval Processes

Most theories of infantile and childhood amnesia have favored some explanation that focuses on the retrieval end of the memory-processing sequence.


Freud himself, of course, preferred an entirely non-boring explanation, which was that the memories of infancy and childhood are covered by repression (Freud, 1900).  Recall that, in classic psychoanalytic theory, the mind of the young child -- from birth to age 5, covering Freud's oral, anal, and phallic stages of development, is dominated by primary process thought, focused on immediate gratification of primitive sexual and aggressive urges arising from the id.  These conflict with the demands of the real world (monitored by the ego), and with the demands of society (monitored by the superego), precipitating the Oedipus crisis (at least in boys).  The child then defends against castration anxiety by repressing these primitive sexual and aggressive urges, and everything associated with them.  And since everything is associated with them, it all gets repressed, resulting in infantile and childhood amnesia.  The only way that these pre-Oedipal memories can slip past the repressive censor is in the form of dream imagery and neurotic symptoms.

Of course, it's not easy to repress everything, not least because the resulting lacuna in memory is disconcerting.  Therefore, Freud argued, a few highly selected memories were allowed past the repressive barrier, in order to aid the repression of everything else.  Freud called these screen memories, and characterized them as static, innocuous, and devoid of emotion.  Screen memories give us something benign (if not banal) to remember, in the service of repressing memories that are highly threatening.

Freud's explanation of infantile and childhood amnesia is thus related to his explanation for other memory failures, such as those associated with "hysteria", fugue, and multiple personality disorder; dreams; and slips of memory (like what we call the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon).

Repression, as Freud construed it, constitutes a retrieval failure.  The memories of infancy and early childhood have been encoded and remain available in storage; they're simply not accessible to retrieval, because of the effects of repression.  Put another way:

  • Infantile and childhood amnesia impairs explicit memory.
  • But if spares implicit memory, so that the memories of infancy and early childhood emerge in the form of dream images and symptoms.
OK, that's interesting, but the repression hypothesis has its problems. 
  • First, we should draw a distinction between conflict-laden primal memories, which should be subject to repression, and other memories, which are, as David Rapaport (1944) put it, "merely unpleasant".  Repression acts only on primal memories, so we should be left with a whole bunch of other memories from this period of life.
  • In all the years that Freud and others have been writing psychoanalytic case studies, hardly anyone has ever remarked on the emergence of infantile and childhood memories as a result of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  Of course, for repressed memories to emerge, the psychoanalysis has to be successful.  Perhaps that's the point.

Schema Theory

An even more interesting, and just as provocative, retrieval theory of infantile and childhood amnesia was proposed by Ernst Schactel (1947), based on schema theory

Recall that, in Bartlett's reconstructivist theory of memory, percepts are constructed, and memories reconstructed, against a background of prevailing cognitive structures - -schemata.  Schactel offered a cognitive take on Freud's theory of infantile sexuality, suggesting that the shift from one psychosexual stage to another entailed permanent changes in the schemata that were brought to bear on cognition.  If, say a memory was encoded with the mental schemata associated with Freud's oral stage, but an adult attempted to retrieve that memory employing schemata associated with the "genital" stage of mature thought, then the memory would be effectively lost.  

As a historical note, it was Schactel's paper on infantile and childhood amnesia that stimulated Neisser to revive Bartlett's schema concept in Cognitive Psychology (1967).  In fact, in an earlier paper, Neisser (1962) himself had suggested a cognitive take on Schactel, based on Piaget's stage theory of cognitive development, but retaining the basic idea of an incompatibility between the schemata used to encode memories and those used to retrieve them.

Freud, Piaget, or somebody else, the basic idea here is the encoding specificity principle -- or, alternatively, transfer-appropriate processing: the encoding of early memories is governed by the cognitive schemata characteristic of infancy and childhood, while the retrieval of those memories is governed by the cognitive schemata characteristic of adulthood.  What causes infantile and childhood amnesia, then, is the incompatibility of the schemata deployed at encoding and retrieval.

In his 1962 paper, Neisser characterized development in Piagetian terms as a dialectic between the assimilation of events to prevailing cognitive schemata (thereby altering the mental representation of the event), and the accommodation of schemata to the events (thereby altering those same schemata)  He further noted that there were two quite different types of accommodation:

  • In absorption, the old schema is destroyed, while the new knowledge is retained, preserving what we would now call semantic memory.
  • In displacement, the old schema is replaced, but not lost entirely, so that access to the old schema would be possible, at least in principle.
According to a story which may be apocryphal, Silvan Tomkins once attempted to re-activate childhood schemata by building a room where all the furniture was giant-sized, so that his adult subjects would have the perspective of a child.  It didn't work, apparently, but it was a great idea.


Information-Processing Theories

White and Pillemer (1979) while generally agreeing that infantile and childhood amnesia reflected retrieval failure, noted that a retrieval failure could in turn reflect an encoding failure -- not simply a matter of encoding specificity.  That is, a failure to properly encode a memory, following principles such as elaboration and organization, might create a trace that is available in memory, but not easily accessible.  In their view, infantile and childhood amnesia reflects the fact that young children simply do not have the attentional capacity or the knowledge-base to engage in the elaborative and organizational processes required to encode a trace "deeply".  The shallow encoding, in turn, makes the memory hard to access at the time retrieval is attempted.  


Neurological Theories

Another group of theories focuses on the properties of the immature brain, rather than on the principles of memory (Nadel & Zola-Morgan, 1984; McKee & Squire, 1993).  The general idea is that, by virtue of incomplete brain development -- in the medial temporal lobe memory system, or the diencephalon, or the prefrontal cortex -- infants and young children simply can't encode memories in a form that will be retrievable as adults.


An Infant Model of Episodic Memory

All of which raises the question of What can infants learn?  And What can infants remember?  To this end, Carolyn Rovee-Collier and her colleagues developed an infant model of episodic memory.

  • There were two age-appropriate tasks. 
    • In the mobile task, infants aged 2-6 months are placed in a special crib.  By means of a ribbon, the infant's ankle was connected to an overhead mobile, which the child could set in motion by kicking.
    • In the train task, somewhat older infants, aged 6-18 months, could press a lever to set a toy train in motion.
  • During a baseline period, kicking the ribbon or pressing the lever had no effect.
  • Then, during the training period, the response was connected to the outcome (training was extended over 2 days).
  • Next came a varying retention interval.
  • And then, finally, a series of tests in which the response was again disconnected, so that there was no further opportunity for learning (testing was extended over a period of weeks).
RoveeCollier.JPG (48365 bytes)The major result was that even very young infants were capable of learning to control the mobile, and of retaining the training over short intervals of time, 1 or 2 days.  However, long-term retention (2 weeks or more) was systematically related to age of learning.  The older the child at initial learning, the longer the learning was retained.

  • Infants who learned the response at 9-12 months showed generalization to a novel exemplar -- for example, a different train.
  • Deferred imitation was tested by showing the infant an adult performing the task.  Deferred imitation occurred as early as 6 months (the earliest it can reasonably be tested) if the task was familiar, and at 9-12 months if it was novel.
  • The role of retrieval cues was tested by presenting the child with either the original stimulus (mobile or train), or a novel version, or by shifting the context in which the mobile or train was presented (e.g., a day-care center vs. the laboratory).  Before 12 months of age, reminders were only effective when presented in the same context in which the original learning occurred.  After 12 months of age, reminders presented in a different context were effective.
  • Once forgetting occurred, the infants were able to respond to the presentation of a prime consisting of some isolated component of the original testing situation -- for example, when the experimenter set the mobile or train in motion for 2 minutes.  Priming was shown by a reduction in time to resume the forgotten response on a subsequent test.   
    • 3-month-old infants took 24 hours to respond to the priming cue.
    • 6-month-olds required only 1 hour, whether they were tested on the mobile or the train.
    • 9-month-olds required only 1 minute.
    • And 12-month-olds responded immediately, within about 1 second.

Rovee-Collier concluded that even very young infants had the capacity to form episodic memories -- memories representing events occurring over a very short period of time.  However, retention of the memory, and the speed of memory processing, increased over the first year of life.  Rovee-Collier further concluded that both explicit and implicit memory systems, underlying recognition and priming, respectively, are present in early infancy.  

Just as important in the present context, Rovee-Collier claimed that her evidence seriously undermined some theoretical accounts of infantile amnesia.  For example, long-term retention is possible even though the infants have an immature brain and are unable to represent their memories verbally.  She suggested that the infantile amnesia was more likely due to two factors:

  • a shift in the context between encoding and retrieval (older children, and adults, don't spend too much time in cribs);
  • a shift from nonverbal to verbal retrieval cues.
She further suggested that the loss of contextual information from memory would effectively produce infantile amnesia in an older child or adult.  That is, "even if an appropriate retrieval cue were to recover an early memory later in life, a person would probably be unable to identify it as such" (Rovee-Collier, 1999, p. 85).

Rovee-Collier's research shows that infants are far more capable of learning than anyone ever thought they were.  As such, her work joins research by others in the domain of language.  Even the youngest infant is constantly acquiring knowledge about its environment: what predicts what, what controls what, how the world is organized.  

  • But it's not clear to me that her mobile and train tasks are good models of episodic memory.  Rather, both seem to exemplify instrumental conditioning -- the infants are learning how to control part of their environment.  The knowledge acquired is arguably procedural: IF I kick my foot, THEN the mobile will move.  But it's not at all clear that the children have acquired anything like knowledge of a specific episode, marked by a unique spatiotemporal address.
  • Nor is it clear that her results bear on the issue of explicit and implicit memory in infants.  Yes, the infants seem to recognize the mobile on the immediate test trials; and yes, they show priming effects after they appear to have forgotten about the mobile.  But we don't have any way of assessing consciousness in these infants -- or, put more precisely, this paradigm doesn't offer such a way.
Still, Rovee-Collier (and others) have shown clearly that even very young infants can learn.  That rules out one class of explanations for infantile amnesia -- that adults can't remember events occurring during infancy because infants can't either!


What Happens in the "Five-to-Seven Shift"?

Recall that infantile and childhood amnesia has two aspects: infantile amnesia, which is addressed by Rovee-Collier and others; and childhood amnesia, which covers a greater expanse of time.  Despite the demonstrated learning ability of the infant and young child, with respect to semantic and procedural memory, very little episodic memory from early childhood is accessible to older children and adults.

In trying to explain why this is so, attention has focused on what Sheldon (Shep) White, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, characterized as the five-to-seven shift.  That is, something seems to happen to children, between the ages of five and seven, that affects later access to earlier memories.  What that "something" is, however, depends on the theory.

  • For Freud, it is the resolution of the Oedipus complex, and the shift from the phallic stage of psychosexual development to the latency period.
  • For Piaget, it would be the shift from pre-operational thought to concrete operations.
  • For some neuroscientists, it would be the development of the hippocampus, or perhaps the prefrontal cortex.
  • For some psychologists, it would be the development of language expertise.
Note that, in line with conventional psychological thinking, all these changes take place within the individual's mind or brain.

But there's another possibility, which is that the important changes take place in the external world, outside the individual's skin.

  • Like school.  This was, in fact, Neisser's proposal in his 1962 paper.  He noted that, in those days before universal kindergarten, not to mention preschool and nursery school, and "Baby Einstein" classes at the local community center, starting school is the first time, for most children, that their lives are organized by space and time.  If it's Monday, then you go to school.  If it's Saturday, you stay at home.  If it's September, you're in school.  If it's July, on vacation.  Thus, for the very first time, the environment provides the child with salient spatiotemporal markers that allow him to encode new events with a unique location in space and time.  Since these spatiotemporal markers are necessary for conscious recollection of an episodic memory, the real shift is in the world outside the environment.
    •  Note that this is an example of the ecological point of view in memory -- articulated by Neisser long before he encountered the Gibsons at Cornell, and long before he wrote his 1976 book.
  • Of course, it's one thing to have the environment provide episodic markers.  It's another thing to process those markers into lasting episodic memories.  So, most likely, childhood amnesia reflects a sort of interaction between changes in the mind and brain of the child, and changes in the environment outside.
Addressing the problem of infantile and childhood amnesia, Nelson (1993) has provided a classification of the various forms of event memory.
  • Generic Event Memory, consisting of abstract, generalized schemas and scripts for various kinds of events.
  • Episodic Memory, traces of specific events of the sort studied in the verbal-learning tradition.
  • Autobiographical Memory in the strict sense: memory for salient personal events that are significant to the self-system, and which last long into adulthood.
Nelson argues that infants may have generic event memories, and they may have episodic memories, but they do not have autobiographical memories in the strict sense of the term.  She argues that the development of ABM begins about age 3, and is the product of both internal and external factors.
  • The child's cognitive capacity, affecting his or her ability to process relevant information.
  • A knowledge base, providing the cognitive background for understanding, and encoding, the meaning of events.
  • Event markers of the sort discussed by Neisser.
  • For Nelson, parent-child talk is critical for the development of ABM.  She argues that remembering is a social interaction, and that through talking about events children learn to tell stories to others, and also to formulate the story of their own lives.
  • Finally, there are processes of rehearsal and reinstatement by which the memory is consolidated into long-lasting, easily accessible form.
The result is the development of an episodic memory system, consisting of many parts:
  • Memory for unique episodes, accessible over short retention intervals.
  • Generic memory for recurrent episodes, accessible over long retention intervals.
  • Autobiographical memory, which develops through the sharing of memories

Research by Patricia Bauer (Memory, 2014) has shown that young children have autobiographical memory.  She had mothers ask their children, aged 3, about their earliest memories.

This, in turn, feeds into the Fivush-Nelson idea that the key to lasting autobiographical memories is the ability to represent events as meaningful stories.  And, from Fivush's point of view, the development of narrative ability is the key to the development of identity - -that is, to a coherent sense of self.

The Development of Autobiographical Memory

We know that babies begin learning at birth -- if not before, in the womb, becoming familiar with their mother's voice.  But we also know that autobiographical memory (ABM) -- the ability to remember specific events and experiences -- develops much later.  Why this is so has been addressed, to some degree, in the theories of infantile and childhood amnesia described above.  Perhaps the most comprehensive account of the development of  ABM has been provided by Robyn Fivush (see, for example, her article with Nelson in Psychological Review, 2004; and her chapter in the Annual Review of Psychology for 2011, from which this account is mostly drawn).

Fivush first addresses the question of whether ABM is unique to humans.  Following Tulving (2002), she identifies two components to ABM:

Fivush argues that while specifically episodic memory may be available to some nonhuman species, ABM includes more.

Fivush, then, defines ABM as a form of cultural activity which is shaped by social interaction.  But it is also a developmental accomplishment requiring a number of component skills, including:

Fivush begins with a fairly traditional taxonomy of memory, adopting Squire's distinction between declarative and nondeclarative (i.e., memory, and Tulving's distinction between episodic and semantic memory.

She then argues that ABM requires both episodic memory and autonoetic consciousness.  And in order to achieve autonoetic consciousness, you've got to have a self (which gives you the "auto" in "autonoetic").  It's that subjective sense of selfhood that develops over time, and which allows ABM to develop over time as well.  She further argues that "it is not possible to create an autobiography outside of a social-cultural group" (p. 563).  Which gives rise to her Socio-Cultural Developmental Theory of ABM, which she began developing along with Katherine Nelson.

Socio-Cultural Developmental Theory

Fivush argues that while a capacity for episodic memory is universal within the human species, "the forms and functions of autobiographical memory are socially and culturally variable".  The nature of ABM will depend on assumptions about the self -- and, for that matter, memory -- which characterize the social-cultural context in which the child grows up.  The result is that both the content and the functions of ABM are likely to vary from culture to culture -- and especially between Western and non-Western, and between literate and non-literate, cultures.  As she points, out, in Western culture, at least, "Being a person means having a story to tell about your experiences, and these stories help constitute who you are".

With those points in hand, Fivush then goes on to trace the emergence of autobiographical memory.

The result of all this is that, by the end of the pre-school years, children have ABM -- the ability to tell coherent stories about their past experiences.  It is this social-cultural developmental process, rather than the development of the hippocampus, which accounts for the end of infantile and childhood amnesia.

Episodic Memory  and Consciousness in Animals

Fivush argues that ABM is unique to humans, but she concedes that episodic memory may be part of the cognitive repertoire of nonhuman species.  In fact, a number of studies have shown that some non-humans do have the capacity to remember specific events that occurred at specific times, and can even plan for the future.   For a review of this literature, see the article by Clayton et al. in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2003).

So where does the claim that ABM is uniquely human come from?  Apparently, Fivush, like Tulving, believes that autonoetic consciousness is uniquely human.  Perhaps: without the ability to interrogate animals about what they're thinking, we may never know.  But then again, the whole point of research in animal cognition is, precisely, to find out what animals are thinking.  Given the Darwinian principle of evolutionary continuity, it is probably not correct to deny that all nonhuman animals have autonoetic consciousness.  And if they do, then at least some species may have the capacity for ABM as Fivush defines it.

Developmental Functions of Memory

Nelson's and Fivush's work on ABM  reminds us that memory is not merely a cognitive faculty, it also serves personal and social functions.  In particular, the sharing of memory allows the child to develop a sense of herself as a person, and also to enter into the social history of his or her family and community.

  • Memory obviously performs a cognitive function, allowing us to represent past events and use this information to predict future events.
  • Memory also serves a personal function, telling us (or allowing us to tell ourselves) who we are.
    • ABM gives the person a sense of continuity and coherence over time.
    • Memory and selfhood are in a dialectical relationship: memories define the self, and the self determines which memories are important.
    • The ability to create a coherent autobiographical narrative may be critical to the individual's sense of well-being.
  • And memory serves a social function, connecting us to other people and also to larger sociocultural structures.
    • ABM helps define the self in relation to others.
    • Also, through shared reminiscence, ABM facilitates the establishment of bonds with other people (it's not all oxytocin!).
These last two functions, the personal and the social, are the subjects of the lectures on Personal Memory and Social Memory.


This page last modified 06/24/2021.