Can Babies Form Memories?

Do you remember taking your first steps? How about saying your first words? How well can you retell the events of your first day of daycare? What was the first joke you laughed at? Most adults can’t answer these questions and even if they can, they can’t answer it with 100% confidence that their memory of those events is actually accurate. We have a hard time remembering our earliest memories because of something called infantile amnesia. This is when people over the age of seven have trouble recalling events from early childhood. Our bodies and brains develop the most during childhood, which also includes our memory-forming systems in the brain. So since we’re still learning to form new memories when we create these memories, it’s hard for us to retrieve those memories as adults. 

Travaglia et al (2016) did a study focusing on infantile amnesia and found that it is strongly connected to the development of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a brain structure in the temporal lobe that is associated with learning and memory. Other researchers found strong connections between the hippocampus and long term memory. (Katzman, 2022) As a result of all of the development happening in the brain at the time, our hippocampus is not fully functioning as it would in an adult.

Even though you can’t answer the questions from the beginning, is there a place from your childhood that you used to go to that feels familiar or like home to you? Is there a song you were told you listened to as a kid that gives you a warm feeling? Have you ever looked at a picture from your childhood and been able to remember exactly how you were feeling in that moment? It is important to realize that even though infants and toddlers do not have a fully-functioning hippocampus, it is still functioning and forming memories to a certain extent. This is why you can see the effects of childhood memories on grown adults. An infant can go through trauma and be affected by it in their later years. This is also why parenting styles early on in a child’s life can have a huge impact. You may not be able to say the memories but their memories are still there influencing your behaviors in the same way other memories do. 

This phenomenon can be explained by a problem with retrieval of a memory in infants and toddlers. It seems like at the time, they are able to store the memory but having trouble retrieving it. This would explain why even as adults, we can’t seem to retrieve the memory but it still intuitively effects our behavior because the memory was somehow stored. 

Research done a few years ago provided a demonstration of this problem with retrieval in baby rats(Travaglia, et. al, 2016).  Travalgia and colleagues did a study on rats that proved an experience from early childhood was stored as a memory trace. The researchers used 17-24 day old rats and tested the likelihood that the rats would return to an area in which they were previously shocked. There were two compartments and a door separating both compartments. The first compartment is where the rat is initially placed. When the rat enters the second compartment, the door is closed and the rat is shocked on the foot. They are then tested later to see whether the rats will enter the second compartment. Some rats were trained to remember the shocking while other rats only experienced the shocking experience one time and other rats (the control) did not experience the foot shock at all. 

They found that when the rats were trained to remember there was a shock, they would remember not to go into the second compartment but would rapidly forget (about 1 day later). They also tested whether a contextual reminder or a shock-reminder would reinstate the memory. While the contextual reminder did not, when the rats were shocked again, it reinstated the memory. They had similar results to how they acted right after they were trained. The rats being able to learn and avoid the shock initially shows they stored the information somehow. However, they were unable to retrieve that information later and weren’t able to use it to avoid the shock then. While there are differences between rats and humans that could change how this can be applied to us, we see parts of this study a lot in toddlers without even realizing it. Toddlers can hurt themselves running around and cry about it. However, not even minutes later, they can be up and running again, doing exactly the thing that caused them to get hurt. 

Infantile amnesia is a very interesting concept because it’s happens to everyone. As a result, it gives us a lot of information about our development, how memories function in childhood and adulthood, and how these memories can affect our lives. 

Sources

  1. Alberini, C. M., & Travaglia, A. (2017). Infantile amnesia: A critical period of learning to learn and remember. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(24), 5783–5795. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0324-17.2017 
  2. Katzman, A. C. (2022). Molecular mechanisms of memory consolidation and enhancement in the prelimbic cortex and dorsal hippocampus [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences (Vol. 83, Issue 2–A).
  3. Li, S., Callaghan, B. L., & Richardson, R. (2014). Infantile amnesia: Forgotten but not gone. Learning & Memory, 21(3), 135–139. https://doi.org/10.1101/lm.031096.113
  4. Travaglia, A., Bisaz, R., Sweet, E. S., Blitzer, R. D., & Alberini, C. M. (2016). Infantile amnesia reflects a developmental critical period for hippocampal learning. Nature Neuroscience, 19(9), 1225–1233. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/nn.4348

9 thoughts on “Can Babies Form Memories?

  1. Hi Yewande!

    This is such a wonderful post. I never knew of the term infantile amnesia and stuck to the belief that kids don’t form memories till the age of 3 which is why we can’t remember our younger years.

    I appreciate the detailing of the study that showcases how experiences in youth maintain effects on us despite not being able to retrieve the memories themselves. I feel this information is a perfect sway into learning more about the role of parenting and guardian relationships and how they effect the lifespan of the child.

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    1. Hi Yewande,

      From your post, I learn that the hippocampus plays an important role in processing memory and babies’ deficits in the memory system are related to their immature hippocampal structure. However, I am confused about the differences between storing and retrieving memory. My understanding is that if babies have the ability to store memory information, they should also be able to retrieve it. I hope that you could have talked about the differences between them in more detail.

      Moreover, I would like to learn more about babies’ memory and classical conditioning. In our Principles of Learning class, we talked about the Little Albert Experiment. The experimenter trained Albert to be afraid of rats using classical conditioning. I wonder how long Albert’s fear of rats would last. Following the logic of your post, Albert should not be scared of rats after a certain amount of time. However, is there any possibility that the experiment caused a long-term phobia for Albert? If so, can we still say that babies have difficulties retrieving their memory?

      In conclusion, your post is precise and contains a lot of useful information. I suggest that you might add a flow chart in the fifth paragraph to explain the experiment on baby rats. It will make your post easier to read and more accessible to the general audience.

      Youyu Li

      Like

  2. Hello Yewande,

    Your post was engaging. Infantile memory formation was not something I have ever considered. One of the most intriguing aspects of your post was your discussion about infantile amnesia and the hippocampus.

    Also, when studying early memory in humans, there is a question of if the participants remember their infantile years or are they recounting what they heard other says. For example, I swear to my mother that I remember saying my first words, but my mother says I was too young to remember and must have formed a memory from her recounting of the event.

    Great Post!
    Sincerely, Bashaina (Shasha)

    Like

  3. Hi Yewande — I really liked the point you made on how parenting styles play a huge role in the development of an individual. I’ve always found it fascinating how the first 2 years of a child’s life primarily shapes the child’s attachment style for the rest of their life. This has always been interesting to me because attachment styles are so complex and impact every aspect of an individual’s social life. Shasha’s point on believing you remembered your first words is also very interesting to me. It reminds me how individuals will confess to a crime they didn’t commit after extensive questioning; it’s interesting that our brain will “trick” us into remembering or confessing to something we don’t remember jus because of outside influence.

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  4. Hello Yewande, I enjoyed reading your blog post and learning more about how children store memories and infantile amnesia. I particularly liked the section of your blog post in which you discussed how even though we may not be able to recall our memories from childhood directly, they can still influence the way we behave. In one of my education classes at Colby, we discussed how research has shown a link between potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood (ACEs) and leading causes of death in adults (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, smoking). Given this, I am curious if research on childhood memories and how they influence our behavior as adults could help explain this relationship.

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  5. Hi Yewande,
    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your blog post. Especially concerning amnesia. I would like to discover more about traumatic events that happen during childhood and why these things happen they way that they do. Furthermore, I found it really interesting on the topic of believing and saying words that “you” believed you said – when in reality, you never said them in the first place. I believe this tactic is used all of the time on TV shows and it was intriguing to get a basis behind the research.

    Like

  6. Hi Yewande,

    I really enjoyed learning about infantile amnesia! You explain that infantile amnesia is when people cannot remember events from early in their lives with high confidence and that this phenomenon is related to the development of the hippocampus and memory retrieval ability. This reminded me of the misinformation effect, rosy recollection, and other memory errors. The misinformation effect is when details provided about an event after it takes place can change how we remember the event, even if the information is false. Rosy recollection is when we remember an event better than it was. What do you think would be a relationship between these memory errors and age?

    Like

  7. It is so intriguing to learn how forming memories can change with age. I wonder… is the fact that development/past trauma can affect people later in life due to the fact that they remember it, or is it because their brains were permanently restructured in the moment of the event? What would be a good experimental method to determine an answer to this question? Also, I find it interesting how we can use animals to find out more about ourselves as humans. In this case, the rats were perfect because their memories adequately represented the memory of a human baby.

    Like

  8. Hello Yewande,

    I enjoyed your article as I have always had a particular memory of when I “gained consciousness” in my life. To me, before this particular moment I had no memories. I was a little malleable brain absorbing things around me with no permanent memories that would later be filled with many emotions. It is interesting that you brough up that the issue with infantile memories would be the retrieval process. It is fascinating to consider to evolutionary implications of not dedicating resources to memory at such a young age, instead allowing our brain to dedicate resources elsewhere.

    Like

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