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Very Early Experiences May Stick in Memory

Study: Some Children Remembered Events That Happened When They Were 2 Years Old
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 22, 2011 -- The ability to remember our earliest childhood experiences may be in place sooner than experts thought, according to new research.

Some children who played a unique game when they were just 2 years old were able to remember it six years later, the researchers found.

Other researchers who have focused on early memories, however, have said that adults' earliest memories usually start from when they were about 3 1/2 years old.

"We've got relatively objective evidence that people can recall things that happened as young as age 2," says researcher Fiona Jack, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand. "It's not common but [the study] shows it can happen."

The new findings may have implications for the theory of memory development. The new research may also help in legal settings, where it can be important to know if a memory is genuine.

The research is published in the journal Child Development.

Early Experiences & Early Memories Study

Jack and her colleagues report on 46 children who were ages 27 months to a little over 4 years. When they were ages 2 to 4, they all played a unique game called the Magic Shrinking Machine. The researchers watched them play.

The game includes a large black box designed just for the lab research. To make the machine work, the child turns it on by pulling a yellow lever, selecting a toy from an open suitcase, and putting it in a hole in the top of the box. Next, they turn a green handle on the side. When a bell rings, the child opens a red door in the front of the box to retrieve a smaller but identical version of the toy.

Jack and her colleagues interviewed the children and their parents six years later to figure out how well they recalled playing that game.

Only one-fifth of the kids recalled the event. Those who remembered included two children who were  under age 3 when they played. About half the parents recalled the game.

Both the parents and the children who had the early memories gave the researchers very similar reports.

"We know they are recalling the event accurately," Jack tells WebMD. "We were there."

What may have helped some children remember? Talking about the game to the children soon after it occurred may have helped preserve the memory, the researchers say.

Bottom line? The basic capacity of remembering our experiences may be in place for some of us by age 2, Jack says. However, she says, this autobiographical memory is not fully developed at that age. That takes time.

Early Memories: Upsetting Events Even More Likely to Be Recalled?

Others who research early memories say the new finding fits in with their own recent conclusions. "These findings contribute to an emerging body of evidence showing that many children can reliably recall events many years later from when they had been only 2 and 3 years of age," says Carole Peterson, PhD, a professor of  psychology and university research professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

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