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Study: True Memories Can Form As Early as 2 Years Old

Ah, New Year's Eve: It feels so important to find something significant, meaningful, memorable to do. And then two weeks later you can't recall what it was, because it was so much like all the others.  If this year brought something really unique and striking (a sky-parade of 12 dancing pink elephants, say, or a nuclear attack from North Korea), I'd be certain to recall it. On the other hand, conventional wisdom says my son, who is 15 months old, could not. But this paper, just out in the journal Child Development, suggests that conventional wisdom may be wrong: It describes children who clearly recalled an event six years after it happened, when they were only slightly older than two.

"Childhood amnesia" is supposed to throw a veil over our early lives, and most researchers are skeptical of anyone who claims to recall things that happened before they were three or four. People convinced of their memories of being one or two are easy to explain away: Perhaps they imagined the event, perhaps they constructed it out of what they learned later in life. Perhaps they simply heard family stories about themselves so often that they adopted them as their own experiences.

Memory, after all, can be a highly social, fungible thing, even for adults. (President Reagan famously told Israeli visitors that he had seen the horrors of Nazi concentration camps first-hand in 1945, as an Army photographer. That wasn't so but he certainly seemed to believe it.)

In the new study, Fiona Jack of New Zealand's University of Otago and her co-authors took great care to create a memorable event and then make sure that kids' recall of it wasn't created or corrupted by the adults around them. Their experimental group consisted of 46 little kids, the youngest a little older than two and the oldest slightly more than four. The kids were visited by researchers with a gizmo called the "Magic Shrinking Machine"—a box into which the child inserted a toy. After the kid pulled a yellow lever, a smaller version of the same toy came out of the magic box.

The "Magic Shrinking Machine" was a clever way to make sure that the experimental event was fun, engaging and deeply weird. Prior studies that failed to find early memories had used mundane events, the authors note, and people usually don't remember things that are unsurprising and frequently repeated (quick: what were you doing on New Year's Eve in 1998? See what I mean?). But the Machine was surprising and as an experience wasn't likely to be repeated.

After 24 hours, the experimenters checked the kids to see how well they recalled their fun time with the Magic Shrinking Machine. Then, to see how well they would recall the experience after a long spell, Jack et al. simply waited. For six years.

When they returned for the long-term memory tests (which were carefully constructed to unmask both parental prompting right before and parental myth-making over the whole span of years), they found that most children had pretty much forgotten the whole thing. However, nine out of 46 had quite strong recollections of their time with the Magic Shrinking Machine. And two of those nine were not much past their second birthdays when they'd participated in the experiment.

Yes, I know, it's only two people. But the claim here is not that very-early memories are widespread. It's that very early memories are possible, despite the assumption that the brain isn't organized or experienced enough at age 2 to build memories for later. And these results aren't the result of complex statistical inference. The kids had an experience and six years later they demonstrated that they recalled it, after the experimenters had made sure that their families had not discussed it with them. That kind of result is hard to argue away.

So for some of us, this paper suggests, the memory-making business may start much earlier than we'd thought.

Illustration: Lead author Fiona Jack with a "Magic Shrinking Machine," from the Otago Daily Times, photo by Peter McIntosh.

Jack, F., Simcock, G., & Hayne, H. (2011). Magic Memories: Young Children’s Verbal Recall After a 6-Year Delay Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01699.x

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