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 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. “We actually recorded the memories of children, and then we followed them into the future to track when they forgot these memories.”
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.
Young children’s brains are like colanders with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory. “As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo,” Bauer says. “Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.” Now that Bauer has documented the onset of childhood amnesia, she hopes to hone in on the age that people acquire an adult memory system, which she believes is between the age of nine and the college years.