childhood memories

August 23, 1994|By Susan M. Barbieri | Susan M. Barbieri,Knight-Ridder News Service

If you have ever wondered why you can't remember a thing that happened to you before age 3, whether some people really can recall being born, or whether your baby is quietly storing and remembering events of early life, a University of Minnesota researcher may have some answers.

For the past eight years, associate professor Patricia Bauer and her colleagues at the Institute of Child Development have followed hundreds of children from infancy through early childhood to track human memory development. The study continues through 1996.

"The question we started out with was simple: Are babies able to recall specific events that happened to them at some point in the past? It sounds like a straightforward question, but it's complicated in a big way by the fact that babies don't talk," says Ms. Bauer.

Ms. Bauer became interested in infant memory research because of the "childhood amnesia" phenomenon commonly reported by adults. Most people cannot remember events from earlier than age 3 -- at least, not firsthand.

Memory development in babies and toddlers is a relatively understudied area because it is so difficult to bridge the communication gap between adult researchers and preverbal children, Ms. Bauer says. The Minnesota group developed a technique called "elicited imitation" for interpreting babies' communication about their past experiences.

In a typical experiment, researchers present the baby with two nesting cups and a rubber ball. The items are placed in front of the baby, who plays with them for awhile. The researcher then shows the baby how to make a rattle by putting the ball inside one cup and covering it with the other.

"We then provide the baby with the props again, and ask them, 'Can you make a rattle just like I did?' I'm asking, inviting them to imitate me," Ms. Bauer says. "We're showing them something that we want them to remember, and then we give them the opportunity to show us that they do."

Babies as young as 11 months old are able to remember events and reproduce them accurately. And as young as 13 months, babies are able to retain these events after relatively long periods of time. Babies tend to have extremely good memory over a delay of about a week. However, in one of Ms. Bauer's studies, the children remembered these laboratory events over a delay of eight months.

"When you think about a 13-month-old, eight months is an extremely long period of time," Ms. Bauer says. The laboratory is enrolling babies at 13, 16 and 20 months for the studies and testing them for their recall after intervals of one, three, six, nine and 12 months.

"When the babies come back for their delay memory, a lot of them are talking by that time. Some of these babies are now 30 months of age," Ms. Bauer says.

Researchers listen to the children's comments and questions about the familiar lab setting and translate their verbal code into "memory talk."

"When the child walks in the room and says, 'Where are those clowns that go around and around?', that's starting to look a little bit more like what adults report about an event," Ms. Bauer says.

"She's telling us about something she remembers. So as soon as they can talk, they're starting to provide these little tidbits that look a lot like adult memories. It's not all put together in a nice narrative story as an adult memory is, but the pieces are there."

Adult memories may be related as tidy narratives, but adult memories are also unreliable. An adult may report a memory as if firsthand, when the memory actually may have been elicited through looking at family photographs or listening to elders' tales.

"I have no way of knowing if you actually remember that event or if you remember your parents telling you about it, or if it's part of the family lore," Ms. Bauer says. "But with the baby, I do. I teach them something, I have control over what they learned, and I know then that they remember it accurately."

Research into infant and childhood memory has implications for child-abuse cases, Ms. Bauer says, but there is a need for basic research.

Experts are only beginning to understand the architecture of the brain and which parts are responsible for memory.

The brain undergoes enormous, rapid development during the first two years of life and continues to develop thereafter, Ms. Bauer says. Neurological research suggests that the parts of the brain required for recall of past experience are not sufficiently developed until late in the first year of life.

This is why Ms. Bauer does not believe people who claim to remember their own birth.

Nevertheless, some psychologists believe babies can remember things that happen before, during and after birth. The Virginia-based Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health, founded by the author of the book "Babies Remember Birth," has found, among other things, that babies exposed to certain songs while in the womb appear to recognize the music after birth.

Adults are fascinated with the subject of infant memory because we can't resist a mystery -- and for those who are unable to remember their own past, curiosity is overwhelming.

"Also, so many people have children and you're interested in your child's development and you're interested in what your child is taking in," Ms. Bauer says. "You spend a lot of time enriching your child's environment, and you're curious if it has any effect. What's going on inside that little brain? They give very few clues."

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