Good Childhood Amnesia: Theoretical Explanations Research Paper Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Memories, Children, Amnesia, Childhood, Family, Language, Study, Acquisition

Pages: 3

Words: 825

Published: 2021/02/24

The term childhood amnesia was first coined by the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud pointed out that children after a certain age cannot remember important childhood memories. What started off as anecdotal evidence has been proved by over a century of empirical studies (Nelson, 1995) Kazdin (2000) defined infantile amnesia as “the inability of human adults to retrieve genuine memories for events that occurred before about three years of age”. Significant amount of research has been conducted on this case of childhood amnesia and what causes it. The paradox of childhood amnesia lies in the fact that while young children can remember some of the most remote events that happened in their childhood, as they grow older and reach adulthood, these memories completely fade out(Schwartz, 2013). Today we will look at some of the existing theories and see which provides a plausible explanation. Goswami (2008) provides a very comprehensive classification of memory and Siegler (1991) points out that memory acquisition consists of three distinct stages. First, encoding happens when the memory is coded verbatim or in gist the second stage, the memory is stored through the creation of neuronal pathways, and finally, these memories might be recalled in the third stage, known as the recall stage. Strangely, childhood amnesia is common to rodent species as well, studies conducted by Campbell and associates (1962) it was found that younger rats actually had lower memory retention capabilities compared to older animals.

Neurogenic Hypothesis

The neurogenic hypothesis has been suggested by Josselyn and Frankland (2012). The hippocampus is responsible for encoding episodic memories, this brain region automatically encodes all experiences of an individual. Josselyn and Frankland (2012) suggest that the hippocampus goes through a large scale neurogenesis during the growing years. Neurogenesis involves building new neurons and creating new connections between these neurons. However, what happens to the old connections? Or the memories that the child created as an infant? Researchers believe that the large scale neurogenesis affects existing memories as the new neuron networks are remapped. These neuron networks not only remap the circuitry of the brain at the cost of childhood memories, they also improve cognitive functions. Therefore the children lose their earlier memories because the extensive restructuring of the neuronal network in the hippocampus as they grow old and gain a higher degree of cognitive functioning. Josselyn and Frankland put forward a very interesting theory that addresses the paradox of childhood amnesia and provides plausible explanation to its occurrence. However in the absence of neurobiological studies proving the neurogenesis theory, we cannot be completely reliant on this theory alone.

Role of Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is one of the most memory intensive tasks that infants go through and is often considered the first step of a child’s journey into self-awareness. A number of theorists believe that language acquisition and childhood amnesia are related. Scientists such as Gleitman (2003) argue that children acquire adult speech by the age of four years, which is roughly the time for the onset of childhood amnesia as well. According to Gleitman and associates, the preverbal infants cannot encode memories in the same format that is compatible with modern language. Probably children fail to verbalize their earliest memories because they were not coded in the same way, and slowly lose these memories as they grow older. However, Meltzoff (2013) conducted a very important study on 14-16 month old infants. In this study Meltzoff used the deferred imitation technique to show infants certain objects and how to use them. Two months later when they were brought back to the same experimental setup, the children used the objects the same way by imitating the actions of the experimenter seen two months prior.
Therefore we see that children even at a very early age can retain and recall memories that are quite old. Despite the language explosion, (Nelson, 1973) children should be able to recall most of their earlier memories without fail. Some scientists like Baddeley (2003) have argued that language acquisition and social interactions could cause a huge change in how infants process their preverbal memories and how they communicate it to the outer world. Gathercole and Baddeley (1990) conducted empirical studies on children with speech impairments, testing their memory capabilities with children of the same age without any impairments. The study showed that children with phonological impairments did not have good memory retention capabilities compared to the control. The empirical study conducted by Gathercole and Baddeley showcases a causal relationship between language acquisition and memory, which could be useful to better understand the underpinnings of childhood amnesia and language. Newcombe & Fox (1994) conducted studies on children aged 10 years, asking them if they could recognize their preschool classmates from the ages of two to three years. The study showed that most children could recognize their quite efficiently, however very few students could remember any explicit memories during the preschool years. Newcombe and Fox (1994) opined that, children could be losing some explicit memories due to childhood amnesia but the implicit memories still remain. Therefore under the present circumstances language acquisition cannot be considered the only causal factor for infantile amnesia. Furthermore, evidences that suggest nonverbal animals like lab rats also show symptoms similar to infantile amnesia, we can probably rule out language acquisition as responsible for infantile amnesia. The present review of literature provides substantial evidence for the neurogenic hypothesis.


Based on the above selection of papers, it is evident that the transition from infancy to childhood is time period where the brain is in a constant state of flux due to the neurogenesis. Empirical studies by Meltzoff (2013),) suggests that preverbal infants also remember and retain information very efficiently. Newcombe & Fox (1994) suggest that explicit memories may be lost as children grow older but implicit memories may still remain so childhood amnesia might be affecting only the verbatim memories (Siegler, 1991). I think the neurogenic hypothesis provides a very plausible explanation to the paradox of childhood amnesia as it is applicable to humans as well as non-verbal animal models like rats that also suffer from amnesia. Therefore childhood amnesia could be caused by the sudden explosion of neuron generation that affects the brain circuitry and causes children to lose some verbatim memories for the sake of gaining language and other cognitive skills. On the other hand the language acquisition hypothesis does not account for the amnesia in young animals and does not provide a plausible explanation to the paradox. Therefore based on the findings of the literature review, Neurogenic hypothesis provides a better explanation for the causal mechanisms of infantile amnesia compared to language acquisition.


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Bennett L. Schwartz (Ed.). (2013). Memory: foundations and applications. Sage. ISBN-10: 9781452259116
Campbell BA, Campbell EH. 1962. Retention and extinction of learned fear in infant and adult rats. J Comp Physiol Psychol 55: 1–8.
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