Infantile "Amnesia" is Dead!
In academic circles, a long-standing prejudice against the reliability of all early memory is collapsing. The least-likely period for memory to function, the intrauterine period, increasingly illuminated by ultrasound, has made it possible for visionary experimental psychologists to show that memory and learning systems are intact. Babies still in the womb are signaling that they have become familiar with rhymes repeated to them daily over a four-week period. Likewise, immediately after birth, babies exposed to parents' voices, musical passages, soap opera themes, news program sounds, sounds of their native language, as well as tastes and smells introduced in utero are all treated as familiar, that is, learned and remembered from weeks and months before birth.
Memory experts have continued to overlook the prima facie evidence provided by two- and three-year old children spontaneously recalling specific aspects of their birth when they are first able to use language (Linda Mathison, 1981). This evidence, published in magazines for parents and childbirth educators, was not taken seriously in scientific circles. Ironically, for almost three decades, we have had memory experts denying birth memory at the same time that new waves of three-year-olds were proving them wrong!
Psychologists and pediatricians alike have been enthralled by the theory of infantile amnesia since it was first stated by Sigmund Freud in 1916. His popular observation that people rarely remember anything that happened to them before their second or third birthday turned a casual observation into a dogma of developmental psychology. It was further justified by theories of noted Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, about the limitations of newborn intelligence and its development in discreet stages. Tearing down the wall of illusion regarding infant memory has taken a cadre of dedicated researchers almost two generations and several dozen experiments. The death of Freud’s theory of “infantile amnesia” was accurately described by Carolyn Rovee-Collier (1996) when she called it a “misconception…an effort to explain a phenomenon that does not exist.”
A key prejudice stemming from anatomy made it difficult to accept any sophisticated early use of the mind because the brain was unfinished and would not be able to support memory and learning. A further prejudice in psychology was that true episodic memory could not be tested with prenates or preverbal infants. These notions made it easy to avoid doing research on prenates and newborns, and when contrary findings were first reported, they were easily dismissed.
In spite of this, experimental psychologists finally managed to prove that children at age three, age two, age one, and at birth were all able to demonstrate different forms of recall.Preverbal infants showed they could recall procedures involving a series of steps, after long delays, or recall details of hidden objects, locations, and size from much earlier experiences. In the end, experts began to see that early learning required the same factors and conditions which improve recall in older children and adults, such as the nature and importance of the events, the number of times they experience them, and the availability of cues or reminders. The new perspective was that babies are constantly remembering and learning what they need to know at the time; these memories are not lost, they are continually updated as learning progresses.
The old belief that infants were mentally incompetent isolated them and delayed discovery of even their most elementary senses, emotions, and skills. More importantly, dogma and prejudice obscured the evidence for higher perception, telepathic communication, and subtle forms of knowing and awareness which could only be confirmed much later as the babies became children and adults. The false idea of “infantile amnesia” that prevailed for eighty years (1916-1996) misled professionals in both medicine and psychology and delayed parents from realizing the true capacities of their babies in the womb, at birth, and during infancy.
Note: The chief architects in psychology of the demise of "infantile amnesia" have been Patricia Bauer, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, and Andrew Meltzoff. Some of their work and the work of other contributors are listed here to allow for historical study in greater detail.
Bauer, P. & Mandler, J. M. (1989), One thing follows another: Effects of temporal structure on 1- to 2-year-olds' recall of events. Developmental Psychology, 25(2), 197-206.
Bauer, P. J. & Mandler, J. (1992), Putting the horse before the cart: The use of temporal order in recall of events by one-year-old children. Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 441-452.
Bauer, P. J. & Wewerka, S. S. (1995), One- to two-year-olds' recall of events: The more expressed, the more impressed. J. of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 475-496.
Bauer, P. J. (1996), What do infants recall of their lives? Memory for specific events by one- to two-year-olds, American Psychologist, 51(1), 29-41.
Drummey, A. B. & Newcombe, N. (1995), Remembering versus knowing the past: Children's explicit and implicit memories for pictures. Journal Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 549-565
Hayne, H. & Findlay, N. (1995), Contextual control of memory retrieval in infancy: Evidence for associative priming. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 195-207.
Hayne, H. & Rovee-Collier (1995), The organization of reactivated memory in infancy. Child Development, 66(3), 893-906.
Mandler, J. M. & McDonough, L. (1995), Long-term recall of event sequences in infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 457-474
Mathison, L. (1981), Does your child remember? Mothering Magazine, Fall
Meltzoff, A. N. (1988), Imitation of televised models by infants. Child Development, 59, 1221-1229.
Meltzoff, A. N. (1995), What infant memory tells us about infantile amnesia: Long-term recall and deferred imitation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 497-515.
Meltzoff, A. N. & Gopnik, A. (1997), Words, Thoughts and Theories, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rovee-Collier, C. & Fagan, J. (1981), The retrieval of memory in early infancy. In L. Lipsitt, (Ed.), Advances in infancy research, volume 1. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Rovee-Collier, C. & Lipsitt, L. (1982), Learning, adaptation, and memory in the newborn. In P. Stratton (Ed.) Psychobiology of the human newborn (pp. 147-190). New York: Wiley.
Rovee-Collier, C. (1987), Learning and memory in infancy. In J. D. Osofsky (Ed.), Handbook of infant development (2nd ed.) (pp. 98-148). New York: Wiley.
vee-Collier, C. & Hayne, H. (1987), Reactivation of infant memory: Implications for cognitive development. In H. Reese (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 20, 185-238.
Rovee-Collier, C. (1989), The joy of kicking: Memories, motives, and mobiles. In Solomon and others (Eds.), Memory: Interdisciplinary approaches, 151-180. New York: Springer.
Rovee-Collier, C. (1996), Shifting the focus from what to why, Infant Behavior and Development, 19(4), 385-400.