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Think back to your childhood and try to identify your earliest memory. How old were you? Most people are not able to recount memories for experiences prior to the age of three years, a phenomenon called infantile amnesia. The question of why infantile amnesia occurs has intrigued psychologists for decades, especially in light of ample evidence that infants and young children can display impressive memory capabilities. Many find that understanding the general nature of autobiographical memory, that is, memory for events that have occurred in one's own life, can provide some important clues to this mystery. Between ages three and four, children begin to give fairly lengthy and cohesive descriptions of events in their past. What factors are responsible for this developmental turning point?
Perhaps the explanation goes back to some ideas raised by influential Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget-namely, that children under age two years represent events in a qualitatively different form than older children do. According to this line of thought, the verbal abilities that blossom in the two year old allow events to be coded in a form radically different from the action-based codes of the infant. Verbal abilities of one year olds are, in fact, related to their memories for events one year later. When researchers had one year olds imitate an action sequence one year after they first saw it, there was correlation between the children's verbal skills at the time they first saw the event and their success on the later memory task. However, even children with low verbal skills showed evidence of remembering the event; thus, memories may be facilitated by but are not dependent on those verbal skills.
Another suggestion is that before children can talk about past events in their lives, they need to have a reasonable understanding of the self as a psychological entity. The development of an understanding of the self becomes evident between the first and second years of life and shows rapid elaboration in subsequent years. The realization that the physical self has continuity in time, according to this hypothesis, lays the foundation for the emergence of autobiographical memory.
A third possibility is that children will not be able to tell their own "life story" until they understand something about the general form stories take, that is, the structure of narratives. Knowledge about narratives arises from social interactions, particularly the storytelling that children experience from parents and the attempts parents make to talk with children about past events in their lives. When parents talk with children about "what we did today" or "last week" or "last year," they guide the children's formation of a framework for talking about the past. They also provide children with reminders about the memory and relay the message that memories are valued as part of the cultural experience. It is interesting to note that some studies show Caucasian American children have earlier childhood memories than Korean children do. Furthermore, other studies show that Caucasian American mother-child pairs talk about past events three times more often than do Korean mother-child pairs. Thus, the types of social experiences children have do factor into the development of autobiographical memories.
A final suggestion is that children must begin to develop a "theory of mind"-an awareness of the concept of mental states (feelings, desires, beliefs, and thoughts), their own and those of others-before they can talk about their own past memories. Once children become capable of answering such questions as "What does it mean to remember?" and "What does it mean to know something?" improvements in memory seem to occur.
It may be that the developments just described are intertwined with and influence one another. Talking with parents about the past may enhance the development of the self-concept, for example, as well as help the child understand what it means to "remember." No doubt the ability to talk about one's past represents memory of a different level of complexity than simple recognition or recall.