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.
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
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.
Piaget's theory of cognitive development was
very influential, but it has a lot of problems.
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).
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.
Anyway, 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
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
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
Viewed from this perspective, memory is no less a cognitive achievement than any other aspect of cognitive development.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
But there's another
possibility, which is that the
important changes take place in the
external world, outside the
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
This page last modified 06/24/2021.