Childhood memories lost in time
On any given day, Dr. Carole Peterson or her student assistants may be found jumping on beds or playing with Legos. The professor of psychology must go where her interview subjects take her – and things can get pretty interesting when you’re trying to interview a two-year-old.
It’s all part of a day’s work when your research is centred on childhood amnesia – the absence or scarcity of memories before age four. Dr. Peterson, university research professor in the Department of Psychology at Memorial, has always been interested in children’s autobiographical memory skills – their ability to recall and tell stories about themselves -- and through her research she learned parents have a very direct influence on this skill by the way they talk to their children.
“Some parents talk about the past a lot with their kids and talk about it in elaborative ways,” she explained. “By asking the child lots of questions they have to come up with information and the parents add other information. Essentially they’re co-constructing this complicated event memory. If parents do that a lot, children essentially keep a lot more memories of their life.
But in 1991 her research took a slightly different track when she read an article about how unreliable children were as eyewitnesses in court.
“I realized it was because they were interviewing children about the wrong things,” said Dr. Peterson. “They’re interviewing them about things kids don’t care about or are not interested in. Guts and gore is what they love talking about.”
That’s when she began recruiting children and their parents based on visits to the local children’s hospital emergency room.
“Because those children had been involved in events serious enough to bring them to the Janeway, we were able to interview both the children and adult eyewitnesses and document how accurate the kids’ stories were. Then we followed up with them five years later to see how much they were able to recall, the accuracy of their statements. That’s very relevant to the court system.”
At the same time, she was also able to interview children ages 4-13 about their earliest memories, verify them with parents and then test those memories again when she saw the child years later. She found that the youngest kids were able to recall memories from when they were barely two years old, but these memories were often lost by the return visit.
“The thing I found really interesting when I looked at the infantile amnesia literature was the explanation that kids can’t recall autobiographical memories because they don’t have the language or memory skills or a sense of self, and yet I’m interviewing four-year-olds who are remembering earlier events, so that explanation is out the window. Yet, it’s true that by the time they get to be an adult they can’t remember any of those things. That doesn’t happen with kids who are 10 and up. Their memories seem to be cemented.”
Followup studies also noticed cultural differences between Canadian children and Chinese children.
“Chinese and Canadian kids are hugely different,” explained Dr. Peterson. “We found that Canadian children were used to talking about memories with their parents, and by talking about memories routinely, they are taught that it’s important to remember.
“Chinese families are not doing that because in Chinese culture, focusing on the individual is inappropriate. They focus on communal interdependence whereas we focus on individualization. Research has shown that when Chinese parents remind children about past events, it’s often a disciplinary thing – as in ‘What did you learn from that?’ or ‘What will you do differently next time?’ whereas we do it for entertainment or bonding. That’s showing up in what children recall and don’t recall -- the more parents talk to their children about memories, the better they are able to recall other memories.”
What she found most interesting was that parents were amazed, not only that their young children could remember that far back, but also by the particular memories they recalled.
“That’s the next thing we’re looking at now, why children recall particular memories. The things they recalled were often moments that were so pedestrian the question is why that particular memory stuck with them.”