Discuss the theories that seek to explain why we don’t remember events from infancy. Use research evidence to reach conclusions as to which theories that you discuss offers the most accurate explanation for this phenomena. Charlotte Green Discuss the theories that seek to explain why we don’t remember events from infancy. Use research evidence to reach conclusions as to which theories that you discuss offers the most accurate explanation for this phenomena.
As adults we very rarely remember what happened in our life as infants, this has been labelled as infantile amnesia. This phenomenon has been researched since 1893, however it was Sigmund Freud who began the major research in the area, which has continued to today. Freud was very interested in this area, and originally proposed that this amnesia lasted till about 6/7 years old. However later research has contradicted this saying the amnesia only lasts for the first 2/3 years of your life,
(Perlmutter, 1986). Many theorists have tried to describe this phenomenon, resulting in many different explanations, although many of the explanations have drawbacks, which leads to the constant development in the field. An early notion from Freud to explain infantile amnesia was that we just repress the memories from our childhood, as we feel guilty “What I have in mind is the peculiar amnesia which, in the case of most people, though by no means all, hides the earliest beginnings of their childhood up to their sixth or eight year.” (Freud, 1905/1953). Therefore we are unable to retrieve those memories, especially from the anal and genital stages, as proposed by Freud. He suggested that we repress traumatic memories from infancy so we don’t have to re-live them, as they were either embarrassing or we felt guilty of how we thought and behaved.
There hasn’t been a lot of evidence that can support Freud’s repression theory, as it is quite basic. One bit of research that does support it is a study that looked at high students who were asked to recall their earliest memory. At first the students had a very late first memory, and it was often of a traumatic event. A later second test showed that a considerable amount of the students recalled a different less traumatic first memory (Kihlstrom, et al., 1982). This research supports the theory that we forget the more traumatic memories. However if this theory were to be true that we forgot traumatic memories, then this would surely continue into our adulthood, the fact it doesn’t shows that this isn’t an explanation for infantile amnesia, as it’s not consistent to the theory.
A second theory for the explanation of infantile amnesia is that as young children the brain is not equipped to keep the memories which may be formed. As infants the brain appears to still carry a survival mode, only learning what is needed to survive until it can form fully. Hence keeping anecdotal memories isn’t as useful for infants, so we don’t. This would result in there being no event memories for us to remember as adults.
Although a study carried out by Meltzoff in 1995 proved this theory wrong. Here infants where shown a novel event of an experimenter hitting his head on a box and a light turning on. When 4 months later the same infants were put in the same situation they were more likely to produce a similar action to the original event than the infants who were not originally shown the event. This would highlight that infants do have the capacity to remember things, and that they can retrieve memories.
However this is when they are still at the same development stage, and still haven’t developed language skills therefore they are retrieving information from the method it was put into the brain. This leads onto another theory which is that infants are not able to talk, so they don’t have a language function yet. Therefore the things they do learn are perceptual experiences, so when it comes to retrieving the information in adulthood we can’t, as it is not in a language format in our mind. As the mind of an infant develops its moves from perceptual to cognitive and linguistically, and after this change we lose the ability to retrieve the earlier memories. (Schactel, 1947).
As children learn language around the age of 2-3 years it would fit the theory of infantile amnesia. This is reinforced from a study by Tessler, 1994, which looked at three year olds at a history museum, and if the child had not talked about what they had seen with their mothers then they didn’t remember what they saw. Showing that the use of language helps facilitate memory. Therefore this theory suggests we can only retrieve memories the same way they were put in, and as our brain advances, we no longer have that function but a more advanced one, so we cannot retrieve that information.
A related theory which also involves brain maturity is the development of the sense of self before being able to form memories. The theory proposed by Howe and Courage is that the development and changes of the sense of self over the first 2-3 years is very important to the autobiographical memory. A study they performed looked at a collection of studies on infantile amnesia and from them found that infants can’t form lasting memories, as they lack sense of self. The child needs to learn who they are before they can begin to remember a situation they have been in, this would then mean that until this has been developed memories won’t be formed, resulting in infantile amnesia.
These theories appeal to the implicit nature of an infants brain where it is still at a basic level, therefore cannot easily perform more complex tasks. Therefore it is only when the brain functions on a more explicit level when memory retrieval can be performed. However by this time retrieval from the earlier implicit stage cannot take place as the child is trying to retrieve from a different level which can’t happen. Thus we cannot remember things from the implicit stage, as the we no longer work at that level.