New evidence that children start forming solid memories when they are 2 years old

Illustration for article titled New evidence that children start forming solid memories when they are 2 years old

What's your earliest accurate memory? Chances are, it occurred after your third birthday, and until recently, scientists assumed that this was because children do not form accurate memories until the ages of three or four. But a new study from New Zealand suggests that children can correctly recall experiences from when they were two years old.


The general lack of memories before the age of three, dubbed childhood amnesia, has always had exceptions. An 1898 survey of earliest memories even found that 13 percent of the reported memories came from those early years. However, these recollections may not be genuine, but fabricated, actually coming from a different event, or reconstructed from stories told by adults ("remember that time Baby nodded off during dinner and fell face-first into her food?"). The doubt cast on young memories can disqualify some testimony from being used in court trials-but these early remembrances may in fact be true.

As the researchers point out in their paper:

"While these very early memories are not uncommon, their veracity is often debated. As researchers, what do we know about memory development that would allow us to establish an objective criterion for accepting or rejecting these accounts as genuine memories? Taken to the extreme, claims that some people can recall their own birth are generally met with great scepticism [sic], but is there any scientific reason to doubt the authenticity of these memories? What about other memories dating back to the first year or two of life?"

To test the veracity of early memories, a group of about 50 children between the ages of two and four played with a fairly memorable machine, which had an effect similar to being sent by TV: It "magically" shrunk objects. In their homes, the children turned on the machine with a handle of one color, inserted some large object into the top of the machine, and then turned a handle of a different color. With the ding of a bell, a door of a third color opened to reveal an identical object – except that it was a lot smaller.

The somewhat superfluous elements of the machine – having differently colored handles, the presence of a bell – gave the device specific features that researchers could later quiz the participants about, ensuring that they had formed accurate memories. To further assist in memory retrieval, all the children received distinctive cardboard medals after participating.

The researchers interviewed the participants one day after playing with the machine, quizzing them on specific aspects of how it worked, and then performed follow-up interviews again six years later. At the six-year interview, they also interviewed the participants' parents, as well as ten children who had never seen the machine, and who acted as a control group. (The way the control children responded to open-ended questions about the details of the "Magic Box" could be compared to the answers of the other participants, to see if any children were making up their memories of the machine.) After the taped interviews, "coders" read through the transcripts and rated whether or not the children really had remembered playing with the shrinking machine.

After 24 hours, all of the children remembered playing with the toy, but the quality of their memories depended on their ages. After six years, however, only eight children – twenty percent of the participants – remembered the machine accurately. Although a more impressive 62 percent of the parents could remember details about the "Magic Box," their memories were no more accurate than the childrens'.


And in an important detail, original age when children first encountered the shrinking machine did not affect their ability to recall real details about it – in fact, of the eight children who remembered the machine, two of them had been two years old when they first played with it.

The accuracy of the two-year-olds' memories indicates that they are capable of being decent witnesses in court. However, this does not necessarily mean that we should throw them into the witness stand. The study also found that children and parents who did not really remember the toy still answered some of the researchers' questions, sometimes guessing at the answers or in fact describing a different event, even though researchers specifically stated that it was fine for the answer to be "I don't know."


Via Child Development.

Photograph by Ami Parikh via Shutterstok




Just a spelling thing, but there's no need for that "[sic]" after "scepticism"—that's the right British spelling, and presumably it's right in New Zealand too.