Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor, University of Otago
Out of the Mouths of Babes: Memory Development in Infants and Children
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand
“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory…. We are, to be sure, a miracle in every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Like Jane Austen, my students and I are fascinated by the process of memory--the brain’s ability to store virtually endless amounts of information, retaining it so that we can retrieve, ponder, and use it hours, days, or even decades later. Unlike Jane Austen, however, we believe that scientists will eventually unlock some of the basic secrets to “our powers of recollecting and of forgetting.” Furthermore, we believe that one key to unlocking these secrets will emerge through systematic studies of memory development. For example, although acquiring our first words or taking our first steps was undoubtedly monumental at the time it occurred, we have no conscious recollection of our achievement of these milestones. In contrast, our memories of other important achievements that took place slightly later in development (e.g., our first day of school or the first time we rode a bike without training wheels) often survive the test of time and eventually form part of our autobiography. The conspicuous absence of memories for the early years of our lives is commonly referred to as childhood amnesia. For more than two decades my students and I have been studying childhood amnesia by examining memory development as it unfolds during infancy and early childhood. Using a number of different experimental procedures we have shown that for very young participants, memory retrieval is disrupted by even minor changes in the context or stimuli, limiting the accessibility of a given memory over time. Similarly, language development also plays an important role in childhood amnesia; children exhibit limited ability to translate their verbal memories into language as they learn to talk. Recently, we have also documented age-related changes in verbal and nonverbal episodic memory that reflect the emergence of long-term autobiographical memory during childhood. Taken together our research has addressed some important theoretical questions about the source of childhood amnesia. In addition, charting the course of memory development has helped us to understand children’s strengths and weaknesses when they must rely on their memory in educational, legal, and clinical settings.