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What are the main sensory features of earliest memories of childhood?

What are the main sensory features of earliest memories of childhood?



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I understand that experiences are compound in nature and take inputs from multiple senses. But when I ask people to describe the sense associated with their earliest memories I get answers that vary. For some its visual, others auditory yet others tactile.

I would like to know more about the specific aspect of first memories that help me understand the reason for this varied response.


I found a study by Mullen (1994) which discusses the empirical literature on earliest childhood memories (see also the wikipedia article on childhood amensia).

Here are a few interesting quotes:

The average age of earliest memory is consistently found to be in the vicinity of 3.5 years.

Mullen mentions theories for the amnesia prior to this point focussing particularly on the role of language development and training provided by parents in how to socially construct accessible memories.

Mullen distinguishes between types of memories which in some sense pertains to your question about senses:

White and Pillemer (1979) suggest that there may be a dual system of autobiographical memory in which one aspect is a verbally accessible store of interconnected narratives organized with respect to a time frame and the other aspect is an unorganized collection of fragments of images, behaviors and emotions.

In study 3, Mullen (1994) examined the content of earliest reported memories. Here is a table summarising content features of these memories:

Thus, it appears that most of these memories reflect an event in some sense.

Of course there are a bunch of methodological things going on here. I imagine if you delve into the references or these related articles you will find out more on the topic.

Kihlstrom et al (1982) looks like it might be worth a read.

References

  • Mullen, M. K. (1994). Earliest recollections of childhood: A demographic analysis. Cognition, 52(1), 55-79.
  • Kihlstrom, J. F., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1982). The earliest recollection: A new survey. Journal of Personality, 50(2), 134-148.

The Power of the Earliest Memories

Sue Shellenbarger

What you can remember from age 3 may help improve aspects of your life far into adulthood.

Children who have the ability to recall and make sense of memories from daily life—the first day of preschool, the time the cat died—can use them to better develop a sense of identity, form relationships and make sound choices in adolescence and adulthood, new research shows.

While the lives of many youngsters today are heavily documented in photos and video on social media and stored in families' digital archives, studies suggest photos and videos have little impact. Parents play a bigger role in helping determine not just how many early memories children can recall, but how children interpret and learn from the events of their earliest experiences.

"Our personal memories define who we are. They bond us together," says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta and an author of dozens of studies on the topic. Children whose parents encourage reminiscing and storytelling about daily events show better coping and problem-solving skills by their preteens, and fewer symptoms of depression, research shows.

The findings come from research on the mysteries of "childhood amnesia"—the fact that most people's earliest memories fade by ages 6 to 8 as the brain hasn't yet developed the capacity to retain them.

In the past two years, new research techniques—including improved data-modeling methods and growth in studies that track children's memories over several years—have identified specific behaviors that help kids as old as 9 retain more vivid, detailed early memories.

Few childhood memory studies have included fathers. Ones with fathers show mothers are more likely to use a conversation style that helps children retain early memories.

Some memories help build a sense of self-continuity, or personal identity, says a 2011 study. People recall these memories when they "want to feel that I am the same person that I was before," or "when I want to understand how I have changed from who I was before." A hurricane survivor, for example, might recall the memory as proof that she can survive tough experiences and grow stronger as a result.

Other memories serve a directive function, and guide behavior. People recall these when making decisions or to avoid repeating past mistakes. A person whose dog was killed by a car is likely to call on that memory when deciding to keep pets on a leash.

A third type, social-bonding memories, involve relationships with others. People recall these when they want to strengthen relationships or form new ties, the study says. A college student who participated in a different study cited bedtime-reading sessions with his father, who read him the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as a motivator to build and maintain strong family ties in his adult life.

The ability to draw on all three types of memories predicts higher psychological well-being, a greater sense of purpose and more positive relationships, according to a study of 103 college students published last year in the journal Memory. The students were asked to recall four life events and cite reasons they regarded them as significant. Then they filled out assessments gauging their life satisfaction, self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Also, kids who can recall more specific memories are able to come up with more potential solutions to social problems, according to a 2011 University of New Hampshire study of 83 children ages 10 to 15.

Memory making: Widaad Zaman with her daughter, Haneefah, then 3 years old.

Widaad Zaman, a co-author of studies on memory, says early memories help her 4-year-old daughter Haneefah build a sense of identity. She used to love petting dogs being walked by their neighbors, Dr. Zaman says. When a stray dog ran up to her in the family's garage in Orlando, Fla., barking and sniffing at her, however, "she was screaming, and very scared," Dr. Zaman says. The memory has made Haneefah cautious around dogs that aren't on a leash. She sometimes tells her mother, "I used to be a person who liked dogs, but now I'm a person that doesn't like dogs."

The incident helped Haneefah learn to talk about her emotions—an ability linked in research to coping skills. Dr. Zaman encouraged her to describe her feelings and gave them a name—fear. "Were there other times when you were scared or you felt very frightened?" she asked. Haneefah has since learned to start conversations about her emotions, telling her mother, "I had a bad dream and I was scared," Dr. Zaman says.

Few adults remember much before they were 3.5 years old, on average. Some people have credible memories from as early as 18 months of age, however, while others can't recall much before the age of 8, says Patricia Bauer, a psychologist and a senior associate dean for research at Emory.

Early memories have a higher likelihood of surviving when children are encouraged to talk about them soon after the event. Adults can guide them to tell "a good story, that has a beginning, middle and an end," and help them talk about what it means, says Dr. Bauer, a leading researcher on the topic. The key behavior by mothers is "deflecting" conversation back to the child—that is, tossing the ball back to the child repeatedly by asking, say, "We really had fun, didn't we?" or, "Tell me more," she says, based on findings published last year.

Children with mothers who have a "highly elaborative style" of reminiscing with their kids, asking open-ended who, what, where and when questions, are able at ages 4 and 5 to recall earlier, more detailed memories than other children, research shows. Parents with a more "repetitive" style of reminiscing, who ask questions with one-word answers and simply repeat them if the child can't respond, have children with fewer and less vivid recollections.

The elaborative method proved to be easy to learn says Catherine Haden, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, a co-author of a 2003 study of parents of 39 preschoolers. Researchers gave parents a pamphlet to read, then showed them a video describing the elaborative style of conversing with children. Mothers who had the training readily adopted the elaborative style during a staged camping activity, and their kids recalled more details when questioned about the trip later.

Dr. Zaman says she sometimes has to make a conscious effort when she's tired or busy to keep tossing the conversational ball back in Haneefah's court. After a boat ride last weekend, Dr. Zaman encouraged Haneefah to describe the splashing of the waves and her favorite part, watching the driver bring the boat to shore. She wants to show Haneefah "her version of the story matters," she says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8


How far back can you remember? When earliest memories occur

Some are as cozy as a lullaby, like the 52-year-old melodic, moving picture inside Scott Rubel’s head of Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi, strumming guitars, “smiling like goddesses,” and personally serenading away his tears. In that moment, he was 3.

Others are sad, like the 43-year-old desperate pleas that still echo inside Lucy Boyd’s mind: she’s wrapped in her mother's arms as the woman begs her husband — Lucy’s father — not to leave their marriage. On that day, she was not quite 2.

Our first palpable recollections — from vital, early mileposts to seemingly random snapshots of our toddler years — stick for good, on average, when we reach 3 1/2 years old, according to numerous past studies. At that age, the hippocampus, a portion of the brain used to store memories, has adequately matured to handle that task, experts say.

In fact, a fleet of neural-engines are simultaneously revving to life at roughly that same age, including our verbal abilities and the revelation that we are each our own entities, says Julie Gurner, a Philadelphia-based doctor of clinical psychology.

“We know that having language can be very important to memories because in having words for our experiences, we can talk about them, repeat them, and structure them,” says Gurner, who lectures on the brain’s anatomy and functions as assistant professor of psychology at the Community College of Philadelphia. “Around the age of three, we are also developing a distinct sense of self that allows you to distinguish who you are from the outside world.”

Meanwhile, research continues to churn up evidence on how, why and when first memories are recorded.

  • Last year, researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada reported that the earliest recollections of most grade-school children change or "shift" as they mature – and only by about age 10 are they finally cemented into those singular recollections that adults carry through life. That study was published in the journal Child Development.
  • Females seem to form their first permanent memories two to three months earlier than males and, for both genders, inaugural memories tend to be visual and positive rather than verbal or negative, according to a study published in journal Consciousness & Emotion in 2003.

“Strong emotional events truly burn themselves into our memories — both the good and the bad,” Gurner says. “My experience tends to be about half of clients report positive and half report negative experiences. There is likely no one reason we can pinpoint why one person might retain a good memory and another person might retain a bad one. Psychologists are continuing to examine how our predispositions, traits, environment and biology factor into how we frame our own experiences.”

For whatever reason, one lone moment has been selected and stamped in our brains as the first day our life experiences became worthy of mentally filing away and cataloguing. In a sense, they're our cognitive birthday.

For Scott Rubel, that everlasting fragment comes with its own sweet soundtrack – provided by folk singer Joan Baez. That’s the first memory cherished by Rubel, who from age two to four lived on the campus of Redlands University in Redlands, Calif., where his dad was a student.

One night in 1960, a classmate of his father took the family to dinner. En route, they stopped in San Bernardino at the Wigwam Hotel -- which featured an array of 30-foot-tall teepees -- to pick up two more friends: Baez and her sister.

“I probably had seen a couple of John Wayne movies by then and the situation I found myself in seemed like a threat,” says the 55-year-old president of a custom stationery website who lives in Los Angeles. “I began to cry like a baby -- which I guess I was -- and my mother and father held me while the very kind and patient sisters took out their guitars.

“I remember the visual of it clearly as I stopped crying and gazed at these two beautiful women, who [were] dressed almost the same in boots and black skirts with red tops and buckskin jackets," Rubel recounts. "Both had long super-black hair and were true entertainers."

The duo sang and played “until I was calm,” he says, adding that he can mark his age at three years and nine months because he was told Baez had just performed at the Newport Folks Festival.

On the other edge of the emotional spectrum, Lucy Boyd lugs a harsh first childhood memory – the crumbling of her parents’ marriage. During that horrible few minutes, Boyd can picture herself being held by her mother as the woman sat on a piano bench near the front door, beseeching her husband.

“He said he was leaving and she was begging him not to go … I also always had an innate sense of, ‘This is important I need to always remember this,'" says Boyd, 45, a registered nurse and author from Hixson, Tenn. She knows this occurred just before she was two because her parents divorced in 1968.

Then, there are what seem like mundane first memories – stray threads of our past that seem to carry no special weight.

Paula Pant, 28, remembers sitting on her mother’s lap in their Cincinnati living room. She believes she was 2 years old at the time.

“My mom was talking to a guest, one of her friends, who was sitting opposite us," says Pant, who now lives in Atlanta and runs a financial-advice site . "The guest wanted me to sit in his lap. My mom tried to put me in his lap. I started crying, so my mom reversed course, keeping me in her lap. That’s it. It’s a standard, everyday childhood event nothing special or out-of-the-ordinary. There's no reason it would be seared in my mind as my first memory. And yet it is.”

While such fragments might seem to lack any larger meaning decades later, often they do carry some form of subconscious heft, Gurner says.

“This woman may only remember what she sees as an insignificant snippet of memory because it may be the only trace left of a memory that likely was more extensive at another time,” Gurner says. “Often, especially in early memories or before language, we have a hard time keeping our memories in a context. Our memories can fade, and if they do not disappear, sometimes we can be left with the bits."

Gurner’s own first memory was notched, she says, at about age 2, taking place on the farm where she grew up. She is standing in her playpen, gazing out the window at a creature in the pasture. As she soaks in the image, her brain is flooded with questions and feelings of amazement because it is the largest single thing the girl has ever seen. The object: a horse.

“That sense of wonder and curiosity has never left me,” Gurner says. “I believe that sharing a first memory is meaningful because it reveals something uniquely personal about us to others. It allows us to share a moment in time from a vantage point of a younger version of ourselves, and gain insight into the younger versions of someone else.

“First memories get beyond the presentations of everyday life – of clothing, career and status -- and reveal something distinctly personal and unique about you … something about our families or environment," she adds. "But all of it has something that has been so resilient that it has withstood many years of other memories and experiences without erasure. For some it will be fun, for others, very painful – but for everyone, it’s personal.”

What's your earliest memory? Tell us the stories of the earliest moments in your life you can recall -- we'll publish our favorites in an upcoming Body Odd post.


The Forgotten Childhood: Why Early Memories Fade

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik pauses mid-swing in his backyard in Washington, D.C. Like most kids, he's gradually losing his memories of things that happened when he was 3 years old. Meg Vogel/NPR hide caption

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik pauses mid-swing in his backyard in Washington, D.C. Like most kids, he's gradually losing his memories of things that happened when he was 3 years old.

Francis Csedrik, who is 8 and lives in Washington, D.C., remembers a lot of events from when he was 4 or just a bit younger. There was the time he fell "headfirst on a marble floor" and got a concussion, the day someone stole the family car ("my dad had to chase it down the block"), or the morning he found a black bat (the furry kind) in the house.

But Francis looks puzzled when his mom, Joanne Csedrik, asks him about a family trip to the Philippines when he was 3. "It was to celebrate someone's birthday," she tells him. "We took a long plane ride, two boat trips," she adds. Francis says he doesn't remember.

That's a classic example of a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia. "Most adults do not have memories of their lives for the first 3 to 3 1/2 years," says Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory University.

Scientists have known about childhood amnesia for more than a century. But it's only in the past decade that they have begun to figure out when childhood memories start to fade, which early memories are most likely to survive, and how we create a complete autobiography without direct memories of our earliest years.

Childhood Amnesia Starts In Childhood

For a long time, scientists thought childhood amnesia occurred because the brains of young children simply couldn't form lasting memories of specific events. Then, in the 1980s, Bauer and other researchers began testing the memories of children as young as 9 months old, in some cases using gestures and objects instead of words.

"What we found was that even as young as the second year of life, children had very robust memories for these specific past events," Bauer says. So, she wondered, "Why is it that as adults we have difficulty remembering that period of our lives?"

More studies provided evidence that at some point in childhood, people lose access to their early memories. So several years ago, Bauer and her colleague Marina Larkina decided to study a group of children to see what happened to their memories over time.

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At age 3, the children were all recorded speaking with a parent about recent events, like visiting an amusement park or a visit from a relative. Then as the kids got older, the researchers checked to see how much they remembered.

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And they found that children as old as 7 could still recall more than 60 percent of those early events, while children who were 8 or 9 recalled less than 40 percent. "What we observed was actually the onset of childhood amnesia," Bauer says.

It's still not entirely clear why early memories are so fragile. But it probably has to do with the structures and circuits in the brain that store events for future recall, Bauer says.

When a child is younger than 4, those brain systems are still quite immature, Bauer says. "It doesn't mean they're not working at all," she says. "But they're not working as efficiently — and therefore not as effectively — as they're going to be working in later childhood, and certainly in adulthood."

Memories That Persist

Some early memories are more likely than others to survive childhood amnesia, says Carole Peterson at Memorial University of Newfoundland. One example, she says, is a memory that carries a lot of emotion.

Peterson showed this in a study of children who'd been to a hospital emergency room when they were as young as 2 for injuries such as a broken bone or a cut serious enough to require stitches. "These were very emotional, very significant events," Peterson says. "And what we have found is that even 10 years later, children have enormously good memory of that."

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik certainly remembers the events that led to his emergency room visit. He was at school when a friend said, "I want to carry you down the stairs," Francis says. "I didn't want him to, but he didn't listen. He did it. And I fell headfirst on a marble floor."

Francis Csedrik remembers details of being bonked hard on the head when he was 4, and having to go to the emergency room. Meg Vogel/NPR hide caption

Francis Csedrik remembers details of being bonked hard on the head when he was 4, and having to go to the emergency room.

That memory is from when Francis was 4. But a child in one of Peterson's studies recalled an event from when he was just 18 months old. It was the day his mother went to the hospital to give birth to a sibling. "He remembers crying on the floor of the kitchen, and he remembers how upset he was," Peterson says. "And he can remember the pattern of his teardrops on the linoleum."

Findings like that are persuading courts to allow more eyewitness testimony from children, Peterson says. In the past, she says, courts thought children couldn't tell the difference between fact and fantasy. But studies have shown that they can, and that "the amount they remember is staggering."

The key to using children as witnesses is to make sure they are questioned in a noncoercive way, Peterson says. "They want to be cooperative," she says, "so you have to be very careful not to put words in their mouth."

The Power Of Story

Another powerful determinant of whether an early memory sticks is whether a child fashions it into a good story, with a time and place and a coherent sequence of events, Peterson says. "Those are the kinds of memories that are going to last," she says.

And it turns out parents play a big role in what a child remembers, Peterson says. Research shows that when a parent helps a child give shape and structure and context to a memory, it's less likely to fade away.

That's something Joanne Csedrik has worked on with Francis ever since his concussion. At first, he just talked about it with her. But more recently, he's described the incident in school writing assignments.

"I just like writing that story because I just don't want to forget it," Francis says.

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"Because it reminds you to be careful," his mother says. "Right. You don't want to have that happen again."

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"I think that's a day I'll always remember," Francis says.

It's not hard to see an evolutionary reason for memories like this. Kids who recall stories about danger or injuries are probably more likely to survive to become adults.

And stories become important for a different reason in adolescence, Peterson says. That's when people usually begin knitting together all of these smaller stories into a larger life story, "in order to explain why you are the kind of person you are," she says.

Interestingly, a person's life story usually includes events that should have been lost to childhood amnesia. That's because when our own memories start to fail, Peterson says, we rely on family members, photo albums and videos to restore them.


Psychology 10th chapter

_________ refers to the capacity to retain and retrieve information.


A. Priming
B. Recall
C. Memory
D. Recognition

The comparison of memory to a video camera is:


A. Accurate only for memory of facts, not for memory of experiences.
B. Accurate only for memory of experiences, not for memory of facts.
C. Accurate for memory of both facts and experiences.
D. Inaccurate.

The inability to distinguish what you originally experienced from what you heard or were told about an event later is called:


A. Source misattribution.
B. Explicit memory.
C. Semantic memory.
D. Priming.

Which of the following has NOT been shown to affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony?


A. The ethnicity of the suspect and witness
B. The age and sex of the suspect
C. Misleading information presented after the event
D. The nature of questions asked by police and attorneys

Conscious, intentional recollection of an event or of an item of information is called:


A. Explicit memory.
B. Autobiographical memory.
C. Procedural memory.
D. Implicit memory.

Unconscious retention of memory, as evidenced by the effect of a previous experience or previously encountered information on current thoughts and actions is called:


A. Procedural memory
B. Implicit memory.
C. Explicit memory.
D. Declarative memory.

Under most circumstances, when you are intentionally trying to remember an item of information, __________ is an easier task than __________.


A. The savings method priming
B. Recall recognition
C. Priming the savings method
D. Recognition recall

Which of the following is NOT one of the three basic memory processes?


A. Storage
B. Conceptualization
C. Encoding
D. Retrieval

Which memory system has a limited capacity and stores items for about 30 seconds?


A. Short-term memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Long-term memory
D. Implicit memory

Which memory system has an unlimited capacity and can keep information for hours or decades?


A. Implicit memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Long-term memory
D. Short-term memory

In the &ldquothree-box model of memory,&rdquo which memory system holds information for a very short period of time until it can be processed further?


A. Short-term memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Implicit memory
D. Long-term memory

Visual images remain in sensory memory for a maximum of:


A. One-half second.
B. One minute.
C. Thirty seconds.
D. Two seconds.

Auditory images remain in sensory memory for about:


A. Two seconds.
B. One minute.
C. Thirty seconds.
D. One-half second.

___________ acts as a holding bin, retaining information in a highly accurate form until we can select items for attention.


A. The sensory register
B. Short-term memory
C. Working memory
D. Long-term memory

In the 1950s, George Miller estimated the capacity of short-term memory to be the:


A. Magical number 9, plus or minus 3.
B. Magical number 5, plus or minus 4.
C. Magical number 7, plus or minus 2.
D. Magical number 11, plus or minus 1.

Information in short-term memory is retained for about _______ if it is not rehearsed.


A. 2 &ndash 3 seconds or less
B. 30 seconds
C. 30 minutes
D. 5 &ndash 20 minutes

Which component of memory has been referred to as a &ldquoleaky bucket&rdquo?


A. Short-term memory
B. Working memory
C. The sensory register
D. Long-term memory

Which of the following is considered to be an implicit memory?


A. Semantic memory
B. Episodic memory
C. Procedural memory
D. Declarative memory

Memories of personally experienced events and the contexts in which they occurred are called:


A. Short-term memories.
B. Episodic memories.
C. Semantic memories.
D. Procedural memories.

Memories for the performance of actions or skills are called:


A. Short-term memories.
B. Episodic memories.
C. Semantic memories.
D. Procedural memories.

Memories of general knowledge, including facts, rules, concepts and propositions, are called:


A. Episodic memories.
B. Semantic memories.
C. Implicit memories.
D. Procedural memories.

__________ could be called &ldquoknowing how to do something memories.&rdquo


A. Procedural memories
B. Declarative memories
C. Episodic memories
D. Semantic memories

Which of the following is NOT a procedural memory?


A. Typing your term paper on the computer
B. Calling your brother-in-law to say, &ldquoHappy Birthday&rdquo
C. Combing your hair after taking a test
D. Using a pencil to jot a note to your roommate

Which memory from Shannon&rsquos fourth grade experience would be an episodic memory?


A. Four inches of snow contains the same amount of water as .4 inches of rain.
B. The low-level clouds that look like sheets floating in the air are called stratus clouds.
C. For the last two months of school she shared her NFL mechanical pencil with Nick.
D. To mark his territory, a wild boar scrapes a tree as high as he can with his tusk.

Which of the following would be among Patty&rsquos semantic memories?


A. Knowing that her four siblings were members of the wedding party
B. Knowing that it is appropriate to stand when the bride walks down the aisle
C. Knowing that her wedding gown had a train
D. Knowing that Joe proposed to her just after midnight on an April evening

When you remember what happened on your first day of college, you are relying on your ___________ memory.


A. Semantic
B. Episodic
C. Implicit
D. Procedural

When you remember which keys to press when you&rsquore typing your paper, you are relying on your ___________ memory.


A. Declarative
B. Episodic
C. Procedural
D. Semantic

When you remember how to push off with your feet in order to ride your bike and push the handle brakes to slow it down, you are relying on your ______________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Semantic
C. Procedural
D. Declarative

When you remembered that Freud discovered psychoanalysis for your midterm, you were relying on your _________ memory.


A. Procedural
B. Episodic
C. Implicit
D. Semantic

When Todd recalled times when his mother was clinically depressed during his childhood, he was relying on his ____________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Procedural
C. Implicit
D. Semantic

When you remember the definition for &ldquoclassical conditioning&rdquo for your final in this class, you will be relying on your _____________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Semantic
C. Procedural
D. Implicit

A long-lasting increase in the strength of synaptic responsiveness is called:


A. Parallel processing.
B. State-dependent memory.
C. Long-term potentiation.
D. Deep processing.

_________ is thought to be the biological mechanism underlying long-term memory.


A. Deep processing
B. Parallel processing
C. Long-term potentiation
D. State-dependent memory

The process by which long-term memory becomes durable and stable is called:


A. Consolidation.
B. Priming.
C. Confabulation.
D. Chunking.

. During short-term memory tasks, _________ is especially active.


A. The hippocampus
B. The amygdala
C. The frontal lobe
D. The cerebellum

__________ plays a critical role in the formation of long-term declarative memories.


A. The amygdala
B. The frontal lobe
C. The hippocampus
D. The cerebellum

Formation and retention of procedural memories may involve the:


A. Amygdala.
B. Hippocampus.
C. Cerebellum.
D. Frontal lobe.

Maintenance rehearsal is defined as:


A. Processing the physical features of the stimulus to be remembered/
B. Associating new material to be learned with information maintained in long-term memory.
C. Analyzing new materials in order to make it memorable.
D. The rote repetition of material in order to maintain its availability in memory.

________ involves associating new items of information with material that has already been stored.


A. Maintenance rehearsal
B. Long-term potentiation
C. Elaborative rehearsal
D. Deep processing

40. _________ occurs when instead of encoding just the physical or sensory features of the information, the meaning of information is analyzed.


A. Priming
B. Procedural memory
C. Maintenance rehearsal
D. Deep processing

As she studies her psychology textbook, Marilyn wants to make sure that she remembers that &ldquosound intensity is measured in units called decibels and that each decibel is one-tenth of a bel, which is a unit named after Alexander Graham Bell.&rdquo Marilyn creates a visual image of 10 little elf-like Alexander Graham Bells trying to turn up the volume of a huge stereo. Her strategy is called:


A. A mnemonic.
B. Confabulation.
C. Maintenance rehearsal.
D. Priming.

In order to help her music students learn the lines of the &ldquotreble clef&rdquo in musical notation, the teacher has them learn the sentence &ldquoEvery Good Boy Does Fine.&rdquo This is an example of:


A. Pattern recognition.
B. Reconstructive memory.
C. Mnemonics.
D. Serial-position effect.

According to the _________ theory of forgetting, information in memory eventually disappears if it is not accessed.


A. Cue-dependent
B. Replacement
C. Decay
D. Interference

According to the _______ theory of forgetting, one&rsquos original perception can be erased by new and misleading information.


A. Decay
B. Interference
C. Replacement
D. Cue-dependent

According to the __________ theory of forgetting, information may get into memory, but it becomes confused with other information.


A. Interference
B. Replacement
C. Decay
D. Cue-dependent

According to the _____ theory of forgetting, we may feel as if we are lost among the stacks in the mind&rsquos library.


A. Interference
B. Decay
C. Cue-dependent
D. Replacement

Mood-congruent memory, state-dependent memory, and context-dependent memory are all examples of:


A. Elaborative encoding.
B. Interference effects.
C. Encoding strategies.
D. Use of cues in retrieval.

Which of the following is the most common cause of forgetting?


A. Decay
B. Replacement
C. Lack of retrieval cues
D. Interference

________ is defined as forgetting the occurs when recently learned material interferes with the ability to remember similar materials stored previously.


A. Retroactive interference
B. Decay
C. Proactive interference
D. Cue-dependent

________ is defined as forgetting that occurs when previously stored material interferes with the ability to remember similar, more recently stored, material.


A. Retroactive interference
B. Decay
C. Proactive interference
D. Cue-dependent.

Research on retrieval cues shows that:


A. Cues can help retrieval episodic memories of the early years, but procedural memories of the toddler years are rare.
B. Cues in the environment that are present when you learn a new fact can be useful later as retrieval aides.
C. Since preschoolers tend to focus on novelty, distinctive aspects provide retrieval cues to make the event more memorable.
D. All of the above are correct.

After befriending a drunken millionaire, Charlie Chaplin is surprised when the man doesn&rsquot recognize him the next day. In the evening, as the millionaire begins drinking again, Charlie is greeted as a pal. This episode from City Lights was used in the text to illustrate:


A. Repression.
B. State-dependent memory
C. Proactive interference.
D. Psychogenic amnesia.

If you are trying to retrieve a memory, you will be better able to do so if:


A. You used maintenance rehearsal in order to encode the information.
B. You find a psychoanalyst with experience in retrieving unconscious memories.
C. Your current mood matches the mood you were in when you stored the memory.
D. You wait until your emotional arousal is neither low now high.

Given the current research on recovered memories, we should be skeptical if a person says that:


A. He now has memories of his experiences as an infant, thanks to therapy.
B. The judge in his court case wouldn&rsquot consider his recovered memories as admissible evidence.
C. Her amnesia resulted from a blow to the head during a car accident
D. She had psychogenic amnesia after an emotional shock and certain cues led the memory to return.

Research on autobiographical memory indicates that most adults cannot recall any events until about:


A. 18 to 24 months of age.
B. 2 to 3 years of age.
C. 3 to 4 years of age
D. 6 to 18 months of age.


The idea of iconic memory came about because of George Sperling's experiments in the 1960s. He used a tachistoscope to show letters to his test subjects. There were 12 letters in all, arranged in a box shape of three rows of four. The tachistoscope was created in 1859 and was designed to improve people's reading speed or enhance memory.

It displays images on a screen for less than a second. Sperling used this device to see how many letters his subjects could read during the brief flash of the projector. He found that on average, the test subjects could read three to four letters during his experiment.

Following on from this, Sperling conducted the same experiment but with one significant change. He added sound to the images one quarter of a second after the appearance of the letters. He used high, medium and low tones and asked his subjects to read letters from the top, middle and bottom rows according to the tone they heard.

The common response was for the subjects to read three or four letters from a row after they heard the tone. Sperling concluded that his subjects saw a memory of the letters for a quarter of a second and were able to read from this image once they heard the various sounds. Ulric Neisser came up with the phrase 'iconic memory' in 1967.


I Remember Mama and Dada

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Last August, I moved across the country with a child who was a few months shy of his third birthday. I assumed he’d forget his old life—his old friends, his old routine—within a couple of months. Instead, over a half-year later, he remembers it in unnerving detail: the Laundromat below our apartment, the friends he ran around naked with, my wife’s co-workers. I just got done with a stint pretending to be his long-abandoned friend Iris—at his direction.

We assume children don’t remember much, because we don’t remember much about being children. As far as I can tell, I didn’t exist before the age of 5 or so—which is how old I am in my earliest memory, wandering around the Madison, Wis. farmers market in search of cream puffs. But developmental research now tells us that Isaiah’s memory isn’t extraordinary. It’s ordinary. Children remember.

Up until the 1980s, almost no one would have believed that Isaiah still remembers Iris. It was thought that babies and young toddlers lived in a perpetual present: All that existed was the world in front of them at that moment. When Jean Piaget conducted his famous experiments on object permanence—in which once an object was covered up, the baby seemed to forget about it—Piaget concluded that the baby had been unable to store the memory of the object: out of sight, out of mind.

The paradigm of the perpetual present has now itself been forgotten. Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.

The conventional wisdom for older children has been overturned, too. Once, children Isaiah’s age were believed to have memories of the past but nearly no way to organize those memories. According to Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory who studies early memory, the general consensus was that a 3-year-old child’s memory was a jumble of disorganized information, like your email inbox without any sorting function: “You can’t sort them by name, you can’t sort them by date, it’s just all your email messages.”

By those standards, Isaiah is a wizard of memory—the Joshua Foer of the preschool set. But it turns out that all children are Joshua Foer: Even very young children have bewilderingly good memories. Twenty years ago, a study on memories of Walt Disney World—the ne plus ultra memorable experience—surprised everyone involved: Children who’d been at Disney when they were only 3 years old could recount detailed memories of it 18 months later. Evidence has piled up ever since. A just-published paper on long-term recall found that a 27-month-old child who’d seen a “magic shrinking machine” remembered the experience some six years later.

Far from having no memories at all, very young children remember a lot like adults. In early infancy, the neural structures crucial for memory are coming online: the hippocampus, which is, very roughly, in charge of storing new memories and the prefrontal cortex, which is, very roughly, in charge of retrieving those memories.

But these neural regions and their connecting pathways are still developing. And they capture only part of the present as it flows by.

Think of memory as like orzo, Bauer says. “It’s not like one big piece of lasagna noodle. Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.” Adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the orzo. Babies have a big-holed colander: The orzo slips through. “What’s happening with the baby is that a lot of the information is escaping even as the baby is trying to get it organized and stabilized.” In early infancy, a lot of experiences never become memories—they slip away before they can be preserved.

Babies remember far more than anyone thought, in other words, but far less than any adult. It’s only around 24 months that children seem to get better colanders: They get better at catching the orzo—at organizing and processing information in a way that makes a memory out of an experience.

The past gets stickier, too: Memories no longer slip away after a couple of months. Children a few months under 2 retain memories of experiences a year earlier—half their lifetime ago. But they won’t retain those memories into adulthood: No one remembers their second birthday party. For a few reasons—nascent neural structures, the lack of knowledge to make sense of early experiences, the lack of language to represent those experiences—it may be impossible for any part of our lives before, say, 24 months to stick around into adulthood. The average earliest memory—fragmented and lonely, but real—doesn’t date until around 3½ years of age.

What makes that first memory stick into adulthood? This is where the new science of early memory takes an unexpected turn: Once memories start to stick, how long they stick around for may be less of a neural question than a social question. It may have less to do with the child than with the adults.

Psychologists have spent a lot of time listening to how parents talk to their children, specifically how parents negotiate the very stubborn truth of parenthood that children aren’t any good at talking back. Kids can’t keep up their end of the conversation. When discussing the past, parents get around this problem in a couple of different ways. They might ask specific, repetitive questions about past events. Or they might narrate the past in a detailed, elaborate way, asking the child questions and then incorporating their answers into the narrative, a style that researchers call “highly elaborative.”

It turns out that children of highly elaborative mothers tend to have earlier and richer memories. A study of adolescents whose mothers were highly elaborative during their preschool years found they had far earlier first memories than those whose mothers weren’t. Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event. And when parents scaffold their children’s stories—when they essentially tell the stories for their children, as a highly elaborative parent of a very young child would—they are reinforcing those same connections.

The word story is important here. Children are learning how to organize memories in a narrative, and in doing so, they are learning the genre of memory. “As children learn those forms, their memories become more organized,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory who studies memory and narrative. “And more organized memories are better retained over time.”

Conversational style may also explain why women tend to have earlier first memories than men. Girls typically have different and more elaborative interactions in early childhood than boys do. “Mothers are more likely to be highly elaborative when talking about the past, and particularly when talking about highly emotional events in the past, and they’re more likely to do it with their girls than with their boys,” Fivush says.

As an intervention, in at least in the short-term, training parents to talk about the past in a highly elaborative way seems to be highly successful: Children begin to tell stories—to process their experience—in richer, more detailed ways. (There’s also good evidence that that these skills correlate with literacy.) The Maori in New Zealand have the earliest average first memory of any culture—2½ years of age—and talk to their children in a highly elaborative way about their shared past. I’d thought of memory as essentially neural. But at a certain point, it may be as much cultural.

By pretending to be Iris, by acting out stories from Isaiah’s past, I was, without knowing it, teaching my son how, and why, we remember. In the long term, this is pretty fantastic. In the short term, it is pretty profoundly stupid: I was sentencing myself to spend more time pretending to be Iris. “Children learn the skills that are both practiced and valued in their environment,” Fivush says. “Kids who grow up in homes where you talk about the past all the time, in these more elaborative ways, grow up with better memories.”


Cognitive underpinnings of recovered memories of childhood abuse

Recent research on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse has shown that there are at least two types of recovered memory experiences: those that are gradually recovered within the context of suggestive therapy and those that are spontaneously recovered, without extensive prompting or explicit attempts to reconstruct the past. These recovered memory experiences have different origins, with people who recover memories through suggestive therapy being more prone to forming false memories, and with people who report spontaneously recovered memories being more prone to forgetting prior instances of remembering. Additionally, the two types of recovered memory experiences are linked to differences in corroborative evidence, implying that memories recovered spontaneously, outside of suggestive therapy, are more likely to correspond to genuine abuse events. This chapter highlights the background of the recovered memory debate, summarizes recent studies with individuals reporting recovered memory experiences and points towards applications in the justice system and in clinical practice.


6.1. Clinical Presentation

Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe dissociative disorders.
  • Describe how Dissociative Identity Disorder presents.
  • Describe how dissociative amnesia presents.
  • Describe how depersonalization/derealization presents.

Dissociative disorders are a group of disorders characterized by symptoms of disruption in consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, motor control, or behavior (APA, 2013). These symptoms are likely to appear following a significant stressor or years of ongoing stress (i.e., abuse Maldonadao & Spiegel, 2014). Occasionally, one may experience temporary dissociative symptoms due to lack of sleep or ingestion of a substance however, these would not qualify as a dissociative disorder due to the lack of impairment in functioning. Furthermore, individuals who suffer from acute stress disorder and PTSD often experience dissociative symptoms, such as amnesia, flashbacks, depersonalization and derealization however, because of the identifiable stressor (and lack of additional symptoms listed below), they meet diagnostic criteria for a stress disorder as opposed to a dissociative disorder.

There are three main types of dissociative disorders: Dissociative Identity Disorder, Dissociative Amnesia, and Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder.

6.1.1. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is what people commonly refer to as multiple personality disorder. The key diagnostic criteria for DID is the presence of two or more distinct personality states or expressions. The identities are distinct in that they often have a unique tone of voice, engage in different physical gestures (including gait), and have different personalities—ranging anywhere from cooperative and sweet to defiant and aggressive. Additionally, the identities can be of varying ages and gender, have different memories, and sensory-motor functioning.

The second main diagnostic criteria for DID is that there must be a gap in the recall of events, information, or trauma due to the switching of personalities. These gaps are more excessive than typical forgetting one may experience due to lack of attention. These personalities must not be a secondary effect of a substance or medical condition (i.e., gap of information due to seizure).

While personalities can present at any time, there is generally a dominant or primary personality that is present the majority of the time. From there, an individual may have several subpersonalities. Although it is hard to identify how many subpersonalities an individual may have at one time, it is believed that there are on average 15 subpersonalities for women and 8 for men (APA, 2000).

The presentation of switching between personalities varies among individuals and can range from merely appearing to fall asleep, to very dramatic, involving excessive bodily movements. While often sudden and unexpected, switching is generally precipitated by a significant stressor, as the subpersonality best equipped to handle the current stressor will present. The relationship between subpersonalities varies between individuals, with some individuals reporting knowledge of other subpersonalities while others have a one-way amnesic relationship with subpersonalities, meaning they are not aware of other personalities (Barlow & Chu, 2014). These individuals will experience episodes of “amnesia” when the primary personality is not present.

6.1.2. Dissociative Amnesia Disorder

Dissociative amnesia disorder is identified by the inability to recall important autobiographical information. This type of amnesia is different from what one would consider permanent amnesia in that the information was successfully stored in memory however, the individual cannot retrieve it. Additionally, individuals experiencing permanent amnesia often have a neurobiological cause, whereas dissociative amnesia does not (APA, 2013).

There are a few types of amnesia within dissociative amnesia. Localized amnesia, the most common type, is the inability to recall events during a specific period. The length of time within a localized amnesia episode can vary—it can be as short as the time immediately surrounding a traumatic event, to months or years, should the traumatic event occur that long (as commonly seen in abuse and combat situations). Selective amnesia is, in a sense, a component of localized amnesia in that the individual can recall some, but not all, of the details during a specific period. For example, a soldier may experience dissociative amnesia during the time they were deployed, yet still have some memories of positive experiences such as celebrating Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner with their unit.

Conversely, some individuals experience generalized amnesia where they have a complete loss of memory of their entire life history, including their own identity. Individuals who experience this amnesia experience deficits in both semantic and procedural knowledge. This means that individuals have no common knowledge of (i.e. cannot identify letters, colors, numbers) nor do they have the ability to engage in learned skills (i.e. typing shoes, driving car).

While generalized amnesia is extremely rare, it is also extremely frightening. The onset is acute, and the individual is often found wandering in a state of disorientation. Many times, these individuals are brought into emergency rooms by law enforcement following a dangerous situation such as an individual wandering on a busy road.

Dissociative fugue is considered to be the most extreme type of dissociative amnesia. Not only does an individual forget personal information, but they also flee to a different location (APA, 2013). The degree of the fugue varies among individuals—with some experiencing symptoms for a short time (only hours) to others lasting years, affording individuals to take on new identities, careers, and even relationships. Similar to their sudden onset, dissociative fugues also end abruptly. Post dissociative fugue, the individual generally regains most of their memory and rarely relapses. Emotional adjustment after the fugue is dependent on the time the individual spent in the fugue, with those having been in a fugue state longer experiencing more emotional distress than those who experienced a shorter fugue (Kopelman, 2002).

6.1.3. Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder

Depersonalization/Derealization disorder is categorized by recurrent episodes of depersonalization and/or derealization. Depersonalization can be defined as a feeling of unreality or detachment from oneself. Individuals describe this feeling as an out-of-body experience where you are an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and physical being. Furthermore, some patients report feeling as though they lack speech or motor control, thus feeling at times like a robot. Distortions of one’s physical body have also been reported, with various body parts appearing enlarged or shrunken. Emotionally, one may feel detached from their feelings, lacking the ability to feel emotions despite knowing they have them.

Symptoms of derealization include feelings of unreality or detachment from the world—whether it be individuals, objects, or their surroundings. For example, an individual may feel as though they are unfamiliar with their surroundings, even though they are in a place they have been to many times before. Feeling emotionally disconnected from close friends or family members whom they have strong feelings for is another common symptom experienced during derealization episodes. Sensory changes have also been reported, such as feeling as though your environment is distorted, blurry, or even artificial. Distortions of time, distance, and size/shape of objects may also occur.

These episodes can last anywhere from a few hours to days, weeks, or even months (APA, 2013). The onset is generally sudden, and like the other dissociative disorders, is often triggered by intense stress or trauma. As one can imagine, depersonalization/derealization disorder can cause significant emotional distress, as well as impairment in one’s daily functioning (APA, 2013).

Key Takeaways

You should have learned the following in this section:

  • Dissociative disorders are characterized by disruption in consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, motor control, or behavior. They include Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.
  • First, DID is present when a person has two or more distinct personality states or expressions with one becoming the dominant or primary personality.
  • Dissociative amnesia is characterized by the inability to recall important autobiographical information, whether during a specific period (localized) or one’s entire life (generalized) or forgetting personal information and fleeing to a different location (fugue).
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder includes a feeling of unreality or detachment from oneself (depersonalization) and feelings of unreality or detachment from the world (derealization).

Section 6.1 Review Questions

  1. Identify the diagnostic criteria for each of the three dissociative disorders. How are they similar? How are they different?
  2. What is the difference between depersonalization and derealization?

The story of the self

M emory is our past and future. To know who you are as a person, you need to have some idea of who you have been. And, for better or worse, your remembered life story is a pretty good guide to what you will do tomorrow. "Our memory is our coherence," wrote the surrealist Spanish-born film-maker, Luis Buñuel, "our reason, our feeling, even our action." Lose your memory and you lose a basic connection with who you are.

It's no surprise, then, that there is fascination with this quintessentially human ability. When I cast back to an event from my past – let's say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea – I don't just conjure up dates and times and places (what psychologists call "semantic memory"). I do much more than that. I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of "now" intervene.

This is quite a trick, psychologically speaking, and it has made cognitive scientists determined to find out how it is done. The sort of memory I have described is known as "autobiographical memory", because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings of our own lives. It is distinguished from semantic memory, which is memory for facts, and other kinds of implicit long-term memory, such as your memory for complex actions such as riding a bike or playing a saxophone.

When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past. Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else's viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.

We know this from many different sources of evidence. Psychologists have conducted studies on eyewitness testimony, for example, showing how easy it is to change someone's memories by asking misleading questions. If the experimental conditions are set up correctly, it turns out to be rather simple to give people memories for events that never actually happened. These recollections can often be very vivid, as in the case of a study by Kim Wade at the University of Warwick. She colluded with the parents of her student participants to get photos from the undergraduates' childhoods, and to ascertain whether certain events, such as a ride in a hot-air balloon, had ever happened. She then doctored some of the images to show the participant's childhood face in one of these never-experienced contexts, such as the basket of a hot-air balloon in flight. Two weeks after they were shown the pictures, about half of the participants "remembered" the childhood balloon ride, producing some strikingly vivid descriptions, and many showed surprise when they heard that the event had never occurred. In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn't guarantee that it really happened.

Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a consortium of researchers mobilised to gather people's stories about how they heard the news. When followed up three years later, almost half of the testimonies had changed in at least one key detail. For example, people would remember hearing the news from the TV, when actually they initially told the researchers that they had heard it through word of mouth.

What accounts for this unreliability? One factor must be that remembering is always re-remembering. If I think back to how I heard the awful news about 9/11 (climbing out of a swimming pool in Spain), I know that I am not remembering the event so much as my last act of remembering it. Like a game of Chinese whispers, any small error is likely to be propagated along the chain of remembering. The sensory impressions that I took from the event are likely to be stored quite accurately. It is the assembly – the resulting edit – that might not bear much resemblance to how things actually were.

When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present. The memory researcher Martin Conway has described how two forces go head to head in remembering. The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.

One of the most interesting writers on memory, Virginia Woolf, shows this process in action. In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, she tells us that one of her earliest memories is of the pattern of flowers on her mother's dress, seen close-up as she rested on her lap during a train journey to St Ives. She initially links the memory to the outward journey to Cornwall, noting that it is convenient to do so because it points to what was actually her earliest memory: lying in bed in her St Ives nursery listening to the sound of the sea. But Woolf also acknowledges an inconvenient fact. The quality of the light in the carriage suggests that it is evening, making it more likely that the event happened on the journey back from St Ives to London. The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts the force of coherence wants to tell a good story.

How many more of our memories are a story to suit the self? There can be no doubt that our current emotions and beliefs shape the memories that we create. It is hard to remember the political beliefs of our pasts, for example, when so much has changed in the world and in ourselves. How many of us can accurately recall the euphoria at Tony Blair's election in 1997? When our present-day emotions change, so do our memories. Julian Barnes describes this beautifully in his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, when a shift in his protagonist Tony's feelings towards his former lover's parents unlocks new memories of their relationship. "But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? … I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this … All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me."

Of all the memories we cherish, those from childhood are possibly the most special. Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism. When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right. Many factors seem to be critical in children's emergence from childhood amnesia, including language and narrative abilities. When we are able to encode our experience in words, it becomes much easier to put it together into a memory. Intriguingly, though, the boundary of childhood amnesia shifts as you get closer to it. As a couple of recent studies have shown, if you ask children about what they remember from infancy, they remember quite a bit further back than they are likely to do as adults.

There are implications to the unreliability of childhood memories. A recent report commissioned by the British Psychological Society warned professionals working in the legal system not to accept early memories (dating from before the age of three) without corroborating evidence. One particular difficulty with early memories is their susceptibility to contamination by visual images, such as photographs and video. I'm sure that several of my childhood memories are actually memories of seeing myself in photos. When we look back into the past, we are always doing so through a prism of intervening selves. That makes it all the more important for psychologists studying memory to look for confirming evidence when asking people to recall their pasts.

And yet these untrustworthy memories are among the most cherished we have. Memories of childhood are often made out to have a particular kind of authenticity we think they must be pure because we were cognitively so simple back then. We don't associate the slipperiness of memory with the guilelessness of youth. When you read descriptions of people's very early memories, you see that they often function as myths of creation. Your first memory is special because it represents the point when you started being who you are. In Woolf's case, that moment in her bed in the St Ives nursery was the moment she became a conscious being. "If life has a base that it stands upon," she wrote, "if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory."

What should we do about this troublesome mental function? For one thing, I don't think we should stop valuing it. Memory can lead us astray, but then it is a machine with many moving parts, and consequently many things that can go awry. Perhaps even that is the wrong way of looking at it. The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly the thing it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.

That's how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self. It's important not to push the analogy with storytelling too far, but it's a valuable one. Writing about her novel, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has explained how she brought the protagonist Thomas Cromwell alive for the reader by giving him vivid memories. When writers create imaginary memories for their characters, they do a similar kind of thing to what we all do when we make a memory. They weave together bits of their own personal experience, emotions and sensory impressions and the minutiae of specific contexts, and tailor them into a story by hanging them on to a framework of historical fact. They do all that while making them fit the needs of the narrative, serving the story as much as they serve truth.

To emphasise its narrative nature is not to undermine memory's value. It is simply to be realistic about this everyday psychological miracle. If we can be more honest about memory's quirks, we can get along with it better. When I think back to my first attempt at solo swimming, it doesn't bother me that I have probably got some of the details wrong. It might be a fiction, but it's my fiction, and I treasure it. Memory is like that. It makes storytellers of us all.

Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: How we Imagine the Past and Remember the Future, is published by Profile Books in July. You can pre-order it here. He is the author of The Baby in the Mirror (Granta), a reader in psychology at Durham University and a faculty member of the School of Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @cfernyhough


The Forgotten Childhood: Why Early Memories Fade

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik pauses mid-swing in his backyard in Washington, D.C. Like most kids, he's gradually losing his memories of things that happened when he was 3 years old. Meg Vogel/NPR hide caption

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik pauses mid-swing in his backyard in Washington, D.C. Like most kids, he's gradually losing his memories of things that happened when he was 3 years old.

Francis Csedrik, who is 8 and lives in Washington, D.C., remembers a lot of events from when he was 4 or just a bit younger. There was the time he fell "headfirst on a marble floor" and got a concussion, the day someone stole the family car ("my dad had to chase it down the block"), or the morning he found a black bat (the furry kind) in the house.

But Francis looks puzzled when his mom, Joanne Csedrik, asks him about a family trip to the Philippines when he was 3. "It was to celebrate someone's birthday," she tells him. "We took a long plane ride, two boat trips," she adds. Francis says he doesn't remember.

That's a classic example of a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia. "Most adults do not have memories of their lives for the first 3 to 3 1/2 years," says Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory University.

Scientists have known about childhood amnesia for more than a century. But it's only in the past decade that they have begun to figure out when childhood memories start to fade, which early memories are most likely to survive, and how we create a complete autobiography without direct memories of our earliest years.

Childhood Amnesia Starts In Childhood

For a long time, scientists thought childhood amnesia occurred because the brains of young children simply couldn't form lasting memories of specific events. Then, in the 1980s, Bauer and other researchers began testing the memories of children as young as 9 months old, in some cases using gestures and objects instead of words.

"What we found was that even as young as the second year of life, children had very robust memories for these specific past events," Bauer says. So, she wondered, "Why is it that as adults we have difficulty remembering that period of our lives?"

More studies provided evidence that at some point in childhood, people lose access to their early memories. So several years ago, Bauer and her colleague Marina Larkina decided to study a group of children to see what happened to their memories over time.

TED Radio Hour

How Do Experiences Become Memories?

At age 3, the children were all recorded speaking with a parent about recent events, like visiting an amusement park or a visit from a relative. Then as the kids got older, the researchers checked to see how much they remembered.

The Salt

Hours After A Meal, It's The Memory That Matters

And they found that children as old as 7 could still recall more than 60 percent of those early events, while children who were 8 or 9 recalled less than 40 percent. "What we observed was actually the onset of childhood amnesia," Bauer says.

It's still not entirely clear why early memories are so fragile. But it probably has to do with the structures and circuits in the brain that store events for future recall, Bauer says.

When a child is younger than 4, those brain systems are still quite immature, Bauer says. "It doesn't mean they're not working at all," she says. "But they're not working as efficiently — and therefore not as effectively — as they're going to be working in later childhood, and certainly in adulthood."

Memories That Persist

Some early memories are more likely than others to survive childhood amnesia, says Carole Peterson at Memorial University of Newfoundland. One example, she says, is a memory that carries a lot of emotion.

Peterson showed this in a study of children who'd been to a hospital emergency room when they were as young as 2 for injuries such as a broken bone or a cut serious enough to require stitches. "These were very emotional, very significant events," Peterson says. "And what we have found is that even 10 years later, children have enormously good memory of that."

Eight-year-old Francis Csedrik certainly remembers the events that led to his emergency room visit. He was at school when a friend said, "I want to carry you down the stairs," Francis says. "I didn't want him to, but he didn't listen. He did it. And I fell headfirst on a marble floor."

Francis Csedrik remembers details of being bonked hard on the head when he was 4, and having to go to the emergency room. Meg Vogel/NPR hide caption

Francis Csedrik remembers details of being bonked hard on the head when he was 4, and having to go to the emergency room.

That memory is from when Francis was 4. But a child in one of Peterson's studies recalled an event from when he was just 18 months old. It was the day his mother went to the hospital to give birth to a sibling. "He remembers crying on the floor of the kitchen, and he remembers how upset he was," Peterson says. "And he can remember the pattern of his teardrops on the linoleum."

Findings like that are persuading courts to allow more eyewitness testimony from children, Peterson says. In the past, she says, courts thought children couldn't tell the difference between fact and fantasy. But studies have shown that they can, and that "the amount they remember is staggering."

The key to using children as witnesses is to make sure they are questioned in a noncoercive way, Peterson says. "They want to be cooperative," she says, "so you have to be very careful not to put words in their mouth."

The Power Of Story

Another powerful determinant of whether an early memory sticks is whether a child fashions it into a good story, with a time and place and a coherent sequence of events, Peterson says. "Those are the kinds of memories that are going to last," she says.

And it turns out parents play a big role in what a child remembers, Peterson says. Research shows that when a parent helps a child give shape and structure and context to a memory, it's less likely to fade away.

That's something Joanne Csedrik has worked on with Francis ever since his concussion. At first, he just talked about it with her. But more recently, he's described the incident in school writing assignments.

"I just like writing that story because I just don't want to forget it," Francis says.

Author Interviews

'Brain Bugs': Cognitive Flaws That 'Shape Our Lives'

"Because it reminds you to be careful," his mother says. "Right. You don't want to have that happen again."

StoryCorps

For Man With Amnesia, Love Repeats Itself

"I think that's a day I'll always remember," Francis says.

It's not hard to see an evolutionary reason for memories like this. Kids who recall stories about danger or injuries are probably more likely to survive to become adults.

And stories become important for a different reason in adolescence, Peterson says. That's when people usually begin knitting together all of these smaller stories into a larger life story, "in order to explain why you are the kind of person you are," she says.

Interestingly, a person's life story usually includes events that should have been lost to childhood amnesia. That's because when our own memories start to fail, Peterson says, we rely on family members, photo albums and videos to restore them.


Psychology 10th chapter

_________ refers to the capacity to retain and retrieve information.


A. Priming
B. Recall
C. Memory
D. Recognition

The comparison of memory to a video camera is:


A. Accurate only for memory of facts, not for memory of experiences.
B. Accurate only for memory of experiences, not for memory of facts.
C. Accurate for memory of both facts and experiences.
D. Inaccurate.

The inability to distinguish what you originally experienced from what you heard or were told about an event later is called:


A. Source misattribution.
B. Explicit memory.
C. Semantic memory.
D. Priming.

Which of the following has NOT been shown to affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony?


A. The ethnicity of the suspect and witness
B. The age and sex of the suspect
C. Misleading information presented after the event
D. The nature of questions asked by police and attorneys

Conscious, intentional recollection of an event or of an item of information is called:


A. Explicit memory.
B. Autobiographical memory.
C. Procedural memory.
D. Implicit memory.

Unconscious retention of memory, as evidenced by the effect of a previous experience or previously encountered information on current thoughts and actions is called:


A. Procedural memory
B. Implicit memory.
C. Explicit memory.
D. Declarative memory.

Under most circumstances, when you are intentionally trying to remember an item of information, __________ is an easier task than __________.


A. The savings method priming
B. Recall recognition
C. Priming the savings method
D. Recognition recall

Which of the following is NOT one of the three basic memory processes?


A. Storage
B. Conceptualization
C. Encoding
D. Retrieval

Which memory system has a limited capacity and stores items for about 30 seconds?


A. Short-term memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Long-term memory
D. Implicit memory

Which memory system has an unlimited capacity and can keep information for hours or decades?


A. Implicit memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Long-term memory
D. Short-term memory

In the &ldquothree-box model of memory,&rdquo which memory system holds information for a very short period of time until it can be processed further?


A. Short-term memory
B. Sensory memory
C. Implicit memory
D. Long-term memory

Visual images remain in sensory memory for a maximum of:


A. One-half second.
B. One minute.
C. Thirty seconds.
D. Two seconds.

Auditory images remain in sensory memory for about:


A. Two seconds.
B. One minute.
C. Thirty seconds.
D. One-half second.

___________ acts as a holding bin, retaining information in a highly accurate form until we can select items for attention.


A. The sensory register
B. Short-term memory
C. Working memory
D. Long-term memory

In the 1950s, George Miller estimated the capacity of short-term memory to be the:


A. Magical number 9, plus or minus 3.
B. Magical number 5, plus or minus 4.
C. Magical number 7, plus or minus 2.
D. Magical number 11, plus or minus 1.

Information in short-term memory is retained for about _______ if it is not rehearsed.


A. 2 &ndash 3 seconds or less
B. 30 seconds
C. 30 minutes
D. 5 &ndash 20 minutes

Which component of memory has been referred to as a &ldquoleaky bucket&rdquo?


A. Short-term memory
B. Working memory
C. The sensory register
D. Long-term memory

Which of the following is considered to be an implicit memory?


A. Semantic memory
B. Episodic memory
C. Procedural memory
D. Declarative memory

Memories of personally experienced events and the contexts in which they occurred are called:


A. Short-term memories.
B. Episodic memories.
C. Semantic memories.
D. Procedural memories.

Memories for the performance of actions or skills are called:


A. Short-term memories.
B. Episodic memories.
C. Semantic memories.
D. Procedural memories.

Memories of general knowledge, including facts, rules, concepts and propositions, are called:


A. Episodic memories.
B. Semantic memories.
C. Implicit memories.
D. Procedural memories.

__________ could be called &ldquoknowing how to do something memories.&rdquo


A. Procedural memories
B. Declarative memories
C. Episodic memories
D. Semantic memories

Which of the following is NOT a procedural memory?


A. Typing your term paper on the computer
B. Calling your brother-in-law to say, &ldquoHappy Birthday&rdquo
C. Combing your hair after taking a test
D. Using a pencil to jot a note to your roommate

Which memory from Shannon&rsquos fourth grade experience would be an episodic memory?


A. Four inches of snow contains the same amount of water as .4 inches of rain.
B. The low-level clouds that look like sheets floating in the air are called stratus clouds.
C. For the last two months of school she shared her NFL mechanical pencil with Nick.
D. To mark his territory, a wild boar scrapes a tree as high as he can with his tusk.

Which of the following would be among Patty&rsquos semantic memories?


A. Knowing that her four siblings were members of the wedding party
B. Knowing that it is appropriate to stand when the bride walks down the aisle
C. Knowing that her wedding gown had a train
D. Knowing that Joe proposed to her just after midnight on an April evening

When you remember what happened on your first day of college, you are relying on your ___________ memory.


A. Semantic
B. Episodic
C. Implicit
D. Procedural

When you remember which keys to press when you&rsquore typing your paper, you are relying on your ___________ memory.


A. Declarative
B. Episodic
C. Procedural
D. Semantic

When you remember how to push off with your feet in order to ride your bike and push the handle brakes to slow it down, you are relying on your ______________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Semantic
C. Procedural
D. Declarative

When you remembered that Freud discovered psychoanalysis for your midterm, you were relying on your _________ memory.


A. Procedural
B. Episodic
C. Implicit
D. Semantic

When Todd recalled times when his mother was clinically depressed during his childhood, he was relying on his ____________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Procedural
C. Implicit
D. Semantic

When you remember the definition for &ldquoclassical conditioning&rdquo for your final in this class, you will be relying on your _____________ memory.


A. Episodic
B. Semantic
C. Procedural
D. Implicit

A long-lasting increase in the strength of synaptic responsiveness is called:


A. Parallel processing.
B. State-dependent memory.
C. Long-term potentiation.
D. Deep processing.

_________ is thought to be the biological mechanism underlying long-term memory.


A. Deep processing
B. Parallel processing
C. Long-term potentiation
D. State-dependent memory

The process by which long-term memory becomes durable and stable is called:


A. Consolidation.
B. Priming.
C. Confabulation.
D. Chunking.

. During short-term memory tasks, _________ is especially active.


A. The hippocampus
B. The amygdala
C. The frontal lobe
D. The cerebellum

__________ plays a critical role in the formation of long-term declarative memories.


A. The amygdala
B. The frontal lobe
C. The hippocampus
D. The cerebellum

Formation and retention of procedural memories may involve the:


A. Amygdala.
B. Hippocampus.
C. Cerebellum.
D. Frontal lobe.

Maintenance rehearsal is defined as:


A. Processing the physical features of the stimulus to be remembered/
B. Associating new material to be learned with information maintained in long-term memory.
C. Analyzing new materials in order to make it memorable.
D. The rote repetition of material in order to maintain its availability in memory.

________ involves associating new items of information with material that has already been stored.


A. Maintenance rehearsal
B. Long-term potentiation
C. Elaborative rehearsal
D. Deep processing

40. _________ occurs when instead of encoding just the physical or sensory features of the information, the meaning of information is analyzed.


A. Priming
B. Procedural memory
C. Maintenance rehearsal
D. Deep processing

As she studies her psychology textbook, Marilyn wants to make sure that she remembers that &ldquosound intensity is measured in units called decibels and that each decibel is one-tenth of a bel, which is a unit named after Alexander Graham Bell.&rdquo Marilyn creates a visual image of 10 little elf-like Alexander Graham Bells trying to turn up the volume of a huge stereo. Her strategy is called:


A. A mnemonic.
B. Confabulation.
C. Maintenance rehearsal.
D. Priming.

In order to help her music students learn the lines of the &ldquotreble clef&rdquo in musical notation, the teacher has them learn the sentence &ldquoEvery Good Boy Does Fine.&rdquo This is an example of:


A. Pattern recognition.
B. Reconstructive memory.
C. Mnemonics.
D. Serial-position effect.

According to the _________ theory of forgetting, information in memory eventually disappears if it is not accessed.


A. Cue-dependent
B. Replacement
C. Decay
D. Interference

According to the _______ theory of forgetting, one&rsquos original perception can be erased by new and misleading information.


A. Decay
B. Interference
C. Replacement
D. Cue-dependent

According to the __________ theory of forgetting, information may get into memory, but it becomes confused with other information.


A. Interference
B. Replacement
C. Decay
D. Cue-dependent

According to the _____ theory of forgetting, we may feel as if we are lost among the stacks in the mind&rsquos library.


A. Interference
B. Decay
C. Cue-dependent
D. Replacement

Mood-congruent memory, state-dependent memory, and context-dependent memory are all examples of:


A. Elaborative encoding.
B. Interference effects.
C. Encoding strategies.
D. Use of cues in retrieval.

Which of the following is the most common cause of forgetting?


A. Decay
B. Replacement
C. Lack of retrieval cues
D. Interference

________ is defined as forgetting the occurs when recently learned material interferes with the ability to remember similar materials stored previously.


A. Retroactive interference
B. Decay
C. Proactive interference
D. Cue-dependent

________ is defined as forgetting that occurs when previously stored material interferes with the ability to remember similar, more recently stored, material.


A. Retroactive interference
B. Decay
C. Proactive interference
D. Cue-dependent.

Research on retrieval cues shows that:


A. Cues can help retrieval episodic memories of the early years, but procedural memories of the toddler years are rare.
B. Cues in the environment that are present when you learn a new fact can be useful later as retrieval aides.
C. Since preschoolers tend to focus on novelty, distinctive aspects provide retrieval cues to make the event more memorable.
D. All of the above are correct.

After befriending a drunken millionaire, Charlie Chaplin is surprised when the man doesn&rsquot recognize him the next day. In the evening, as the millionaire begins drinking again, Charlie is greeted as a pal. This episode from City Lights was used in the text to illustrate:


A. Repression.
B. State-dependent memory
C. Proactive interference.
D. Psychogenic amnesia.

If you are trying to retrieve a memory, you will be better able to do so if:


A. You used maintenance rehearsal in order to encode the information.
B. You find a psychoanalyst with experience in retrieving unconscious memories.
C. Your current mood matches the mood you were in when you stored the memory.
D. You wait until your emotional arousal is neither low now high.

Given the current research on recovered memories, we should be skeptical if a person says that:


A. He now has memories of his experiences as an infant, thanks to therapy.
B. The judge in his court case wouldn&rsquot consider his recovered memories as admissible evidence.
C. Her amnesia resulted from a blow to the head during a car accident
D. She had psychogenic amnesia after an emotional shock and certain cues led the memory to return.

Research on autobiographical memory indicates that most adults cannot recall any events until about:


A. 18 to 24 months of age.
B. 2 to 3 years of age.
C. 3 to 4 years of age
D. 6 to 18 months of age.


The idea of iconic memory came about because of George Sperling's experiments in the 1960s. He used a tachistoscope to show letters to his test subjects. There were 12 letters in all, arranged in a box shape of three rows of four. The tachistoscope was created in 1859 and was designed to improve people's reading speed or enhance memory.

It displays images on a screen for less than a second. Sperling used this device to see how many letters his subjects could read during the brief flash of the projector. He found that on average, the test subjects could read three to four letters during his experiment.

Following on from this, Sperling conducted the same experiment but with one significant change. He added sound to the images one quarter of a second after the appearance of the letters. He used high, medium and low tones and asked his subjects to read letters from the top, middle and bottom rows according to the tone they heard.

The common response was for the subjects to read three or four letters from a row after they heard the tone. Sperling concluded that his subjects saw a memory of the letters for a quarter of a second and were able to read from this image once they heard the various sounds. Ulric Neisser came up with the phrase 'iconic memory' in 1967.


I Remember Mama and Dada

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Last August, I moved across the country with a child who was a few months shy of his third birthday. I assumed he’d forget his old life—his old friends, his old routine—within a couple of months. Instead, over a half-year later, he remembers it in unnerving detail: the Laundromat below our apartment, the friends he ran around naked with, my wife’s co-workers. I just got done with a stint pretending to be his long-abandoned friend Iris—at his direction.

We assume children don’t remember much, because we don’t remember much about being children. As far as I can tell, I didn’t exist before the age of 5 or so—which is how old I am in my earliest memory, wandering around the Madison, Wis. farmers market in search of cream puffs. But developmental research now tells us that Isaiah’s memory isn’t extraordinary. It’s ordinary. Children remember.

Up until the 1980s, almost no one would have believed that Isaiah still remembers Iris. It was thought that babies and young toddlers lived in a perpetual present: All that existed was the world in front of them at that moment. When Jean Piaget conducted his famous experiments on object permanence—in which once an object was covered up, the baby seemed to forget about it—Piaget concluded that the baby had been unable to store the memory of the object: out of sight, out of mind.

The paradigm of the perpetual present has now itself been forgotten. Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.

The conventional wisdom for older children has been overturned, too. Once, children Isaiah’s age were believed to have memories of the past but nearly no way to organize those memories. According to Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory who studies early memory, the general consensus was that a 3-year-old child’s memory was a jumble of disorganized information, like your email inbox without any sorting function: “You can’t sort them by name, you can’t sort them by date, it’s just all your email messages.”

By those standards, Isaiah is a wizard of memory—the Joshua Foer of the preschool set. But it turns out that all children are Joshua Foer: Even very young children have bewilderingly good memories. Twenty years ago, a study on memories of Walt Disney World—the ne plus ultra memorable experience—surprised everyone involved: Children who’d been at Disney when they were only 3 years old could recount detailed memories of it 18 months later. Evidence has piled up ever since. A just-published paper on long-term recall found that a 27-month-old child who’d seen a “magic shrinking machine” remembered the experience some six years later.

Far from having no memories at all, very young children remember a lot like adults. In early infancy, the neural structures crucial for memory are coming online: the hippocampus, which is, very roughly, in charge of storing new memories and the prefrontal cortex, which is, very roughly, in charge of retrieving those memories.

But these neural regions and their connecting pathways are still developing. And they capture only part of the present as it flows by.

Think of memory as like orzo, Bauer says. “It’s not like one big piece of lasagna noodle. Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.” Adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the orzo. Babies have a big-holed colander: The orzo slips through. “What’s happening with the baby is that a lot of the information is escaping even as the baby is trying to get it organized and stabilized.” In early infancy, a lot of experiences never become memories—they slip away before they can be preserved.

Babies remember far more than anyone thought, in other words, but far less than any adult. It’s only around 24 months that children seem to get better colanders: They get better at catching the orzo—at organizing and processing information in a way that makes a memory out of an experience.

The past gets stickier, too: Memories no longer slip away after a couple of months. Children a few months under 2 retain memories of experiences a year earlier—half their lifetime ago. But they won’t retain those memories into adulthood: No one remembers their second birthday party. For a few reasons—nascent neural structures, the lack of knowledge to make sense of early experiences, the lack of language to represent those experiences—it may be impossible for any part of our lives before, say, 24 months to stick around into adulthood. The average earliest memory—fragmented and lonely, but real—doesn’t date until around 3½ years of age.

What makes that first memory stick into adulthood? This is where the new science of early memory takes an unexpected turn: Once memories start to stick, how long they stick around for may be less of a neural question than a social question. It may have less to do with the child than with the adults.

Psychologists have spent a lot of time listening to how parents talk to their children, specifically how parents negotiate the very stubborn truth of parenthood that children aren’t any good at talking back. Kids can’t keep up their end of the conversation. When discussing the past, parents get around this problem in a couple of different ways. They might ask specific, repetitive questions about past events. Or they might narrate the past in a detailed, elaborate way, asking the child questions and then incorporating their answers into the narrative, a style that researchers call “highly elaborative.”

It turns out that children of highly elaborative mothers tend to have earlier and richer memories. A study of adolescents whose mothers were highly elaborative during their preschool years found they had far earlier first memories than those whose mothers weren’t. Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event. And when parents scaffold their children’s stories—when they essentially tell the stories for their children, as a highly elaborative parent of a very young child would—they are reinforcing those same connections.

The word story is important here. Children are learning how to organize memories in a narrative, and in doing so, they are learning the genre of memory. “As children learn those forms, their memories become more organized,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory who studies memory and narrative. “And more organized memories are better retained over time.”

Conversational style may also explain why women tend to have earlier first memories than men. Girls typically have different and more elaborative interactions in early childhood than boys do. “Mothers are more likely to be highly elaborative when talking about the past, and particularly when talking about highly emotional events in the past, and they’re more likely to do it with their girls than with their boys,” Fivush says.

As an intervention, in at least in the short-term, training parents to talk about the past in a highly elaborative way seems to be highly successful: Children begin to tell stories—to process their experience—in richer, more detailed ways. (There’s also good evidence that that these skills correlate with literacy.) The Maori in New Zealand have the earliest average first memory of any culture—2½ years of age—and talk to their children in a highly elaborative way about their shared past. I’d thought of memory as essentially neural. But at a certain point, it may be as much cultural.

By pretending to be Iris, by acting out stories from Isaiah’s past, I was, without knowing it, teaching my son how, and why, we remember. In the long term, this is pretty fantastic. In the short term, it is pretty profoundly stupid: I was sentencing myself to spend more time pretending to be Iris. “Children learn the skills that are both practiced and valued in their environment,” Fivush says. “Kids who grow up in homes where you talk about the past all the time, in these more elaborative ways, grow up with better memories.”


Cognitive underpinnings of recovered memories of childhood abuse

Recent research on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse has shown that there are at least two types of recovered memory experiences: those that are gradually recovered within the context of suggestive therapy and those that are spontaneously recovered, without extensive prompting or explicit attempts to reconstruct the past. These recovered memory experiences have different origins, with people who recover memories through suggestive therapy being more prone to forming false memories, and with people who report spontaneously recovered memories being more prone to forgetting prior instances of remembering. Additionally, the two types of recovered memory experiences are linked to differences in corroborative evidence, implying that memories recovered spontaneously, outside of suggestive therapy, are more likely to correspond to genuine abuse events. This chapter highlights the background of the recovered memory debate, summarizes recent studies with individuals reporting recovered memory experiences and points towards applications in the justice system and in clinical practice.


The Power of the Earliest Memories

Sue Shellenbarger

What you can remember from age 3 may help improve aspects of your life far into adulthood.

Children who have the ability to recall and make sense of memories from daily life—the first day of preschool, the time the cat died—can use them to better develop a sense of identity, form relationships and make sound choices in adolescence and adulthood, new research shows.

While the lives of many youngsters today are heavily documented in photos and video on social media and stored in families' digital archives, studies suggest photos and videos have little impact. Parents play a bigger role in helping determine not just how many early memories children can recall, but how children interpret and learn from the events of their earliest experiences.

"Our personal memories define who we are. They bond us together," says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta and an author of dozens of studies on the topic. Children whose parents encourage reminiscing and storytelling about daily events show better coping and problem-solving skills by their preteens, and fewer symptoms of depression, research shows.

The findings come from research on the mysteries of "childhood amnesia"—the fact that most people's earliest memories fade by ages 6 to 8 as the brain hasn't yet developed the capacity to retain them.

In the past two years, new research techniques—including improved data-modeling methods and growth in studies that track children's memories over several years—have identified specific behaviors that help kids as old as 9 retain more vivid, detailed early memories.

Few childhood memory studies have included fathers. Ones with fathers show mothers are more likely to use a conversation style that helps children retain early memories.

Some memories help build a sense of self-continuity, or personal identity, says a 2011 study. People recall these memories when they "want to feel that I am the same person that I was before," or "when I want to understand how I have changed from who I was before." A hurricane survivor, for example, might recall the memory as proof that she can survive tough experiences and grow stronger as a result.

Other memories serve a directive function, and guide behavior. People recall these when making decisions or to avoid repeating past mistakes. A person whose dog was killed by a car is likely to call on that memory when deciding to keep pets on a leash.

A third type, social-bonding memories, involve relationships with others. People recall these when they want to strengthen relationships or form new ties, the study says. A college student who participated in a different study cited bedtime-reading sessions with his father, who read him the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as a motivator to build and maintain strong family ties in his adult life.

The ability to draw on all three types of memories predicts higher psychological well-being, a greater sense of purpose and more positive relationships, according to a study of 103 college students published last year in the journal Memory. The students were asked to recall four life events and cite reasons they regarded them as significant. Then they filled out assessments gauging their life satisfaction, self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Also, kids who can recall more specific memories are able to come up with more potential solutions to social problems, according to a 2011 University of New Hampshire study of 83 children ages 10 to 15.

Memory making: Widaad Zaman with her daughter, Haneefah, then 3 years old.

Widaad Zaman, a co-author of studies on memory, says early memories help her 4-year-old daughter Haneefah build a sense of identity. She used to love petting dogs being walked by their neighbors, Dr. Zaman says. When a stray dog ran up to her in the family's garage in Orlando, Fla., barking and sniffing at her, however, "she was screaming, and very scared," Dr. Zaman says. The memory has made Haneefah cautious around dogs that aren't on a leash. She sometimes tells her mother, "I used to be a person who liked dogs, but now I'm a person that doesn't like dogs."

The incident helped Haneefah learn to talk about her emotions—an ability linked in research to coping skills. Dr. Zaman encouraged her to describe her feelings and gave them a name—fear. "Were there other times when you were scared or you felt very frightened?" she asked. Haneefah has since learned to start conversations about her emotions, telling her mother, "I had a bad dream and I was scared," Dr. Zaman says.

Few adults remember much before they were 3.5 years old, on average. Some people have credible memories from as early as 18 months of age, however, while others can't recall much before the age of 8, says Patricia Bauer, a psychologist and a senior associate dean for research at Emory.

Early memories have a higher likelihood of surviving when children are encouraged to talk about them soon after the event. Adults can guide them to tell "a good story, that has a beginning, middle and an end," and help them talk about what it means, says Dr. Bauer, a leading researcher on the topic. The key behavior by mothers is "deflecting" conversation back to the child—that is, tossing the ball back to the child repeatedly by asking, say, "We really had fun, didn't we?" or, "Tell me more," she says, based on findings published last year.

Children with mothers who have a "highly elaborative style" of reminiscing with their kids, asking open-ended who, what, where and when questions, are able at ages 4 and 5 to recall earlier, more detailed memories than other children, research shows. Parents with a more "repetitive" style of reminiscing, who ask questions with one-word answers and simply repeat them if the child can't respond, have children with fewer and less vivid recollections.

The elaborative method proved to be easy to learn says Catherine Haden, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, a co-author of a 2003 study of parents of 39 preschoolers. Researchers gave parents a pamphlet to read, then showed them a video describing the elaborative style of conversing with children. Mothers who had the training readily adopted the elaborative style during a staged camping activity, and their kids recalled more details when questioned about the trip later.

Dr. Zaman says she sometimes has to make a conscious effort when she's tired or busy to keep tossing the conversational ball back in Haneefah's court. After a boat ride last weekend, Dr. Zaman encouraged Haneefah to describe the splashing of the waves and her favorite part, watching the driver bring the boat to shore. She wants to show Haneefah "her version of the story matters," she says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at [email protected]

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The story of the self

M emory is our past and future. To know who you are as a person, you need to have some idea of who you have been. And, for better or worse, your remembered life story is a pretty good guide to what you will do tomorrow. "Our memory is our coherence," wrote the surrealist Spanish-born film-maker, Luis Buñuel, "our reason, our feeling, even our action." Lose your memory and you lose a basic connection with who you are.

It's no surprise, then, that there is fascination with this quintessentially human ability. When I cast back to an event from my past – let's say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea – I don't just conjure up dates and times and places (what psychologists call "semantic memory"). I do much more than that. I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of "now" intervene.

This is quite a trick, psychologically speaking, and it has made cognitive scientists determined to find out how it is done. The sort of memory I have described is known as "autobiographical memory", because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings of our own lives. It is distinguished from semantic memory, which is memory for facts, and other kinds of implicit long-term memory, such as your memory for complex actions such as riding a bike or playing a saxophone.

When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past. Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else's viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.

We know this from many different sources of evidence. Psychologists have conducted studies on eyewitness testimony, for example, showing how easy it is to change someone's memories by asking misleading questions. If the experimental conditions are set up correctly, it turns out to be rather simple to give people memories for events that never actually happened. These recollections can often be very vivid, as in the case of a study by Kim Wade at the University of Warwick. She colluded with the parents of her student participants to get photos from the undergraduates' childhoods, and to ascertain whether certain events, such as a ride in a hot-air balloon, had ever happened. She then doctored some of the images to show the participant's childhood face in one of these never-experienced contexts, such as the basket of a hot-air balloon in flight. Two weeks after they were shown the pictures, about half of the participants "remembered" the childhood balloon ride, producing some strikingly vivid descriptions, and many showed surprise when they heard that the event had never occurred. In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn't guarantee that it really happened.

Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a consortium of researchers mobilised to gather people's stories about how they heard the news. When followed up three years later, almost half of the testimonies had changed in at least one key detail. For example, people would remember hearing the news from the TV, when actually they initially told the researchers that they had heard it through word of mouth.

What accounts for this unreliability? One factor must be that remembering is always re-remembering. If I think back to how I heard the awful news about 9/11 (climbing out of a swimming pool in Spain), I know that I am not remembering the event so much as my last act of remembering it. Like a game of Chinese whispers, any small error is likely to be propagated along the chain of remembering. The sensory impressions that I took from the event are likely to be stored quite accurately. It is the assembly – the resulting edit – that might not bear much resemblance to how things actually were.

When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present. The memory researcher Martin Conway has described how two forces go head to head in remembering. The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.

One of the most interesting writers on memory, Virginia Woolf, shows this process in action. In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, she tells us that one of her earliest memories is of the pattern of flowers on her mother's dress, seen close-up as she rested on her lap during a train journey to St Ives. She initially links the memory to the outward journey to Cornwall, noting that it is convenient to do so because it points to what was actually her earliest memory: lying in bed in her St Ives nursery listening to the sound of the sea. But Woolf also acknowledges an inconvenient fact. The quality of the light in the carriage suggests that it is evening, making it more likely that the event happened on the journey back from St Ives to London. The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts the force of coherence wants to tell a good story.

How many more of our memories are a story to suit the self? There can be no doubt that our current emotions and beliefs shape the memories that we create. It is hard to remember the political beliefs of our pasts, for example, when so much has changed in the world and in ourselves. How many of us can accurately recall the euphoria at Tony Blair's election in 1997? When our present-day emotions change, so do our memories. Julian Barnes describes this beautifully in his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, when a shift in his protagonist Tony's feelings towards his former lover's parents unlocks new memories of their relationship. "But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? … I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this … All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me."

Of all the memories we cherish, those from childhood are possibly the most special. Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism. When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right. Many factors seem to be critical in children's emergence from childhood amnesia, including language and narrative abilities. When we are able to encode our experience in words, it becomes much easier to put it together into a memory. Intriguingly, though, the boundary of childhood amnesia shifts as you get closer to it. As a couple of recent studies have shown, if you ask children about what they remember from infancy, they remember quite a bit further back than they are likely to do as adults.

There are implications to the unreliability of childhood memories. A recent report commissioned by the British Psychological Society warned professionals working in the legal system not to accept early memories (dating from before the age of three) without corroborating evidence. One particular difficulty with early memories is their susceptibility to contamination by visual images, such as photographs and video. I'm sure that several of my childhood memories are actually memories of seeing myself in photos. When we look back into the past, we are always doing so through a prism of intervening selves. That makes it all the more important for psychologists studying memory to look for confirming evidence when asking people to recall their pasts.

And yet these untrustworthy memories are among the most cherished we have. Memories of childhood are often made out to have a particular kind of authenticity we think they must be pure because we were cognitively so simple back then. We don't associate the slipperiness of memory with the guilelessness of youth. When you read descriptions of people's very early memories, you see that they often function as myths of creation. Your first memory is special because it represents the point when you started being who you are. In Woolf's case, that moment in her bed in the St Ives nursery was the moment she became a conscious being. "If life has a base that it stands upon," she wrote, "if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory."

What should we do about this troublesome mental function? For one thing, I don't think we should stop valuing it. Memory can lead us astray, but then it is a machine with many moving parts, and consequently many things that can go awry. Perhaps even that is the wrong way of looking at it. The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly the thing it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.

That's how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self. It's important not to push the analogy with storytelling too far, but it's a valuable one. Writing about her novel, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has explained how she brought the protagonist Thomas Cromwell alive for the reader by giving him vivid memories. When writers create imaginary memories for their characters, they do a similar kind of thing to what we all do when we make a memory. They weave together bits of their own personal experience, emotions and sensory impressions and the minutiae of specific contexts, and tailor them into a story by hanging them on to a framework of historical fact. They do all that while making them fit the needs of the narrative, serving the story as much as they serve truth.

To emphasise its narrative nature is not to undermine memory's value. It is simply to be realistic about this everyday psychological miracle. If we can be more honest about memory's quirks, we can get along with it better. When I think back to my first attempt at solo swimming, it doesn't bother me that I have probably got some of the details wrong. It might be a fiction, but it's my fiction, and I treasure it. Memory is like that. It makes storytellers of us all.

Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. His book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: How we Imagine the Past and Remember the Future, is published by Profile Books in July. You can pre-order it here. He is the author of The Baby in the Mirror (Granta), a reader in psychology at Durham University and a faculty member of the School of Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @cfernyhough


6.1. Clinical Presentation

Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe dissociative disorders.
  • Describe how Dissociative Identity Disorder presents.
  • Describe how dissociative amnesia presents.
  • Describe how depersonalization/derealization presents.

Dissociative disorders are a group of disorders characterized by symptoms of disruption in consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, motor control, or behavior (APA, 2013). These symptoms are likely to appear following a significant stressor or years of ongoing stress (i.e., abuse Maldonadao & Spiegel, 2014). Occasionally, one may experience temporary dissociative symptoms due to lack of sleep or ingestion of a substance however, these would not qualify as a dissociative disorder due to the lack of impairment in functioning. Furthermore, individuals who suffer from acute stress disorder and PTSD often experience dissociative symptoms, such as amnesia, flashbacks, depersonalization and derealization however, because of the identifiable stressor (and lack of additional symptoms listed below), they meet diagnostic criteria for a stress disorder as opposed to a dissociative disorder.

There are three main types of dissociative disorders: Dissociative Identity Disorder, Dissociative Amnesia, and Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder.

6.1.1. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is what people commonly refer to as multiple personality disorder. The key diagnostic criteria for DID is the presence of two or more distinct personality states or expressions. The identities are distinct in that they often have a unique tone of voice, engage in different physical gestures (including gait), and have different personalities—ranging anywhere from cooperative and sweet to defiant and aggressive. Additionally, the identities can be of varying ages and gender, have different memories, and sensory-motor functioning.

The second main diagnostic criteria for DID is that there must be a gap in the recall of events, information, or trauma due to the switching of personalities. These gaps are more excessive than typical forgetting one may experience due to lack of attention. These personalities must not be a secondary effect of a substance or medical condition (i.e., gap of information due to seizure).

While personalities can present at any time, there is generally a dominant or primary personality that is present the majority of the time. From there, an individual may have several subpersonalities. Although it is hard to identify how many subpersonalities an individual may have at one time, it is believed that there are on average 15 subpersonalities for women and 8 for men (APA, 2000).

The presentation of switching between personalities varies among individuals and can range from merely appearing to fall asleep, to very dramatic, involving excessive bodily movements. While often sudden and unexpected, switching is generally precipitated by a significant stressor, as the subpersonality best equipped to handle the current stressor will present. The relationship between subpersonalities varies between individuals, with some individuals reporting knowledge of other subpersonalities while others have a one-way amnesic relationship with subpersonalities, meaning they are not aware of other personalities (Barlow & Chu, 2014). These individuals will experience episodes of “amnesia” when the primary personality is not present.

6.1.2. Dissociative Amnesia Disorder

Dissociative amnesia disorder is identified by the inability to recall important autobiographical information. This type of amnesia is different from what one would consider permanent amnesia in that the information was successfully stored in memory however, the individual cannot retrieve it. Additionally, individuals experiencing permanent amnesia often have a neurobiological cause, whereas dissociative amnesia does not (APA, 2013).

There are a few types of amnesia within dissociative amnesia. Localized amnesia, the most common type, is the inability to recall events during a specific period. The length of time within a localized amnesia episode can vary—it can be as short as the time immediately surrounding a traumatic event, to months or years, should the traumatic event occur that long (as commonly seen in abuse and combat situations). Selective amnesia is, in a sense, a component of localized amnesia in that the individual can recall some, but not all, of the details during a specific period. For example, a soldier may experience dissociative amnesia during the time they were deployed, yet still have some memories of positive experiences such as celebrating Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner with their unit.

Conversely, some individuals experience generalized amnesia where they have a complete loss of memory of their entire life history, including their own identity. Individuals who experience this amnesia experience deficits in both semantic and procedural knowledge. This means that individuals have no common knowledge of (i.e. cannot identify letters, colors, numbers) nor do they have the ability to engage in learned skills (i.e. typing shoes, driving car).

While generalized amnesia is extremely rare, it is also extremely frightening. The onset is acute, and the individual is often found wandering in a state of disorientation. Many times, these individuals are brought into emergency rooms by law enforcement following a dangerous situation such as an individual wandering on a busy road.

Dissociative fugue is considered to be the most extreme type of dissociative amnesia. Not only does an individual forget personal information, but they also flee to a different location (APA, 2013). The degree of the fugue varies among individuals—with some experiencing symptoms for a short time (only hours) to others lasting years, affording individuals to take on new identities, careers, and even relationships. Similar to their sudden onset, dissociative fugues also end abruptly. Post dissociative fugue, the individual generally regains most of their memory and rarely relapses. Emotional adjustment after the fugue is dependent on the time the individual spent in the fugue, with those having been in a fugue state longer experiencing more emotional distress than those who experienced a shorter fugue (Kopelman, 2002).

6.1.3. Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder

Depersonalization/Derealization disorder is categorized by recurrent episodes of depersonalization and/or derealization. Depersonalization can be defined as a feeling of unreality or detachment from oneself. Individuals describe this feeling as an out-of-body experience where you are an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and physical being. Furthermore, some patients report feeling as though they lack speech or motor control, thus feeling at times like a robot. Distortions of one’s physical body have also been reported, with various body parts appearing enlarged or shrunken. Emotionally, one may feel detached from their feelings, lacking the ability to feel emotions despite knowing they have them.

Symptoms of derealization include feelings of unreality or detachment from the world—whether it be individuals, objects, or their surroundings. For example, an individual may feel as though they are unfamiliar with their surroundings, even though they are in a place they have been to many times before. Feeling emotionally disconnected from close friends or family members whom they have strong feelings for is another common symptom experienced during derealization episodes. Sensory changes have also been reported, such as feeling as though your environment is distorted, blurry, or even artificial. Distortions of time, distance, and size/shape of objects may also occur.

These episodes can last anywhere from a few hours to days, weeks, or even months (APA, 2013). The onset is generally sudden, and like the other dissociative disorders, is often triggered by intense stress or trauma. As one can imagine, depersonalization/derealization disorder can cause significant emotional distress, as well as impairment in one’s daily functioning (APA, 2013).

Key Takeaways

You should have learned the following in this section:

  • Dissociative disorders are characterized by disruption in consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, motor control, or behavior. They include Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.
  • First, DID is present when a person has two or more distinct personality states or expressions with one becoming the dominant or primary personality.
  • Dissociative amnesia is characterized by the inability to recall important autobiographical information, whether during a specific period (localized) or one’s entire life (generalized) or forgetting personal information and fleeing to a different location (fugue).
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder includes a feeling of unreality or detachment from oneself (depersonalization) and feelings of unreality or detachment from the world (derealization).

Section 6.1 Review Questions

  1. Identify the diagnostic criteria for each of the three dissociative disorders. How are they similar? How are they different?
  2. What is the difference between depersonalization and derealization?

How far back can you remember? When earliest memories occur

Some are as cozy as a lullaby, like the 52-year-old melodic, moving picture inside Scott Rubel’s head of Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi, strumming guitars, “smiling like goddesses,” and personally serenading away his tears. In that moment, he was 3.

Others are sad, like the 43-year-old desperate pleas that still echo inside Lucy Boyd’s mind: she’s wrapped in her mother's arms as the woman begs her husband — Lucy’s father — not to leave their marriage. On that day, she was not quite 2.

Our first palpable recollections — from vital, early mileposts to seemingly random snapshots of our toddler years — stick for good, on average, when we reach 3 1/2 years old, according to numerous past studies. At that age, the hippocampus, a portion of the brain used to store memories, has adequately matured to handle that task, experts say.

In fact, a fleet of neural-engines are simultaneously revving to life at roughly that same age, including our verbal abilities and the revelation that we are each our own entities, says Julie Gurner, a Philadelphia-based doctor of clinical psychology.

“We know that having language can be very important to memories because in having words for our experiences, we can talk about them, repeat them, and structure them,” says Gurner, who lectures on the brain’s anatomy and functions as assistant professor of psychology at the Community College of Philadelphia. “Around the age of three, we are also developing a distinct sense of self that allows you to distinguish who you are from the outside world.”

Meanwhile, research continues to churn up evidence on how, why and when first memories are recorded.

  • Last year, researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada reported that the earliest recollections of most grade-school children change or "shift" as they mature – and only by about age 10 are they finally cemented into those singular recollections that adults carry through life. That study was published in the journal Child Development.
  • Females seem to form their first permanent memories two to three months earlier than males and, for both genders, inaugural memories tend to be visual and positive rather than verbal or negative, according to a study published in journal Consciousness & Emotion in 2003.

“Strong emotional events truly burn themselves into our memories — both the good and the bad,” Gurner says. “My experience tends to be about half of clients report positive and half report negative experiences. There is likely no one reason we can pinpoint why one person might retain a good memory and another person might retain a bad one. Psychologists are continuing to examine how our predispositions, traits, environment and biology factor into how we frame our own experiences.”

For whatever reason, one lone moment has been selected and stamped in our brains as the first day our life experiences became worthy of mentally filing away and cataloguing. In a sense, they're our cognitive birthday.

For Scott Rubel, that everlasting fragment comes with its own sweet soundtrack – provided by folk singer Joan Baez. That’s the first memory cherished by Rubel, who from age two to four lived on the campus of Redlands University in Redlands, Calif., where his dad was a student.

One night in 1960, a classmate of his father took the family to dinner. En route, they stopped in San Bernardino at the Wigwam Hotel -- which featured an array of 30-foot-tall teepees -- to pick up two more friends: Baez and her sister.

“I probably had seen a couple of John Wayne movies by then and the situation I found myself in seemed like a threat,” says the 55-year-old president of a custom stationery website who lives in Los Angeles. “I began to cry like a baby -- which I guess I was -- and my mother and father held me while the very kind and patient sisters took out their guitars.

“I remember the visual of it clearly as I stopped crying and gazed at these two beautiful women, who [were] dressed almost the same in boots and black skirts with red tops and buckskin jackets," Rubel recounts. "Both had long super-black hair and were true entertainers."

The duo sang and played “until I was calm,” he says, adding that he can mark his age at three years and nine months because he was told Baez had just performed at the Newport Folks Festival.

On the other edge of the emotional spectrum, Lucy Boyd lugs a harsh first childhood memory – the crumbling of her parents’ marriage. During that horrible few minutes, Boyd can picture herself being held by her mother as the woman sat on a piano bench near the front door, beseeching her husband.

“He said he was leaving and she was begging him not to go … I also always had an innate sense of, ‘This is important I need to always remember this,'" says Boyd, 45, a registered nurse and author from Hixson, Tenn. She knows this occurred just before she was two because her parents divorced in 1968.

Then, there are what seem like mundane first memories – stray threads of our past that seem to carry no special weight.

Paula Pant, 28, remembers sitting on her mother’s lap in their Cincinnati living room. She believes she was 2 years old at the time.

“My mom was talking to a guest, one of her friends, who was sitting opposite us," says Pant, who now lives in Atlanta and runs a financial-advice site . "The guest wanted me to sit in his lap. My mom tried to put me in his lap. I started crying, so my mom reversed course, keeping me in her lap. That’s it. It’s a standard, everyday childhood event nothing special or out-of-the-ordinary. There's no reason it would be seared in my mind as my first memory. And yet it is.”

While such fragments might seem to lack any larger meaning decades later, often they do carry some form of subconscious heft, Gurner says.

“This woman may only remember what she sees as an insignificant snippet of memory because it may be the only trace left of a memory that likely was more extensive at another time,” Gurner says. “Often, especially in early memories or before language, we have a hard time keeping our memories in a context. Our memories can fade, and if they do not disappear, sometimes we can be left with the bits."

Gurner’s own first memory was notched, she says, at about age 2, taking place on the farm where she grew up. She is standing in her playpen, gazing out the window at a creature in the pasture. As she soaks in the image, her brain is flooded with questions and feelings of amazement because it is the largest single thing the girl has ever seen. The object: a horse.

“That sense of wonder and curiosity has never left me,” Gurner says. “I believe that sharing a first memory is meaningful because it reveals something uniquely personal about us to others. It allows us to share a moment in time from a vantage point of a younger version of ourselves, and gain insight into the younger versions of someone else.

“First memories get beyond the presentations of everyday life – of clothing, career and status -- and reveal something distinctly personal and unique about you … something about our families or environment," she adds. "But all of it has something that has been so resilient that it has withstood many years of other memories and experiences without erasure. For some it will be fun, for others, very painful – but for everyone, it’s personal.”

What's your earliest memory? Tell us the stories of the earliest moments in your life you can recall -- we'll publish our favorites in an upcoming Body Odd post.