Posted January 31, 2014

Understanding how children make memories

Video Production: Megan Chiplock

Have you ever wondered why your child can’t remember much about that trip to Disney World?

That’s because remembering details about autobiographical moments relies on what psychologists call episodic memory, and it isn’t fully developed until age five.

Of course, children younger than five can remember facts, such as state capitals and the names of fruits or dinosaurs, but they don’t necessarily remember who gave them that information or where they were when they acquired that knowledge.

In the past, psychologists have had difficulty tracing the development of episodic memory in young children with standard memory testing that requires verbal reporting by subjects who are still learning to talk.

But now, Nora Newcombe—professor of psychology, James H. Glackin Distinguished Faculty Fellow and co-director of Temple’s Infant and Child Lab—has developed a nonlinguistic way to test how well toddlers and preschoolers can remember contexts and experiences. Her study, “Two rooms, two representations: Episodic-like memory in toddlers and preschoolers,” was recently published in Developmental Science.

“We developed an experimental paradigm to document the transitions toward episodic memory and confirm what we know about its development,” Newcombe said. “Now, we can use what we have learned to study other factors.”

For the experiment, children aged 18 months to six years old are introduced to two different rooms. The rooms appear different and are described differently. And though each room contains the same four types of containers, even the containers are arranged differently within each room.

Each child is shown that a toy can be found in one of the containers in one room and that a different toy can be found in a different container in the other room. The test is to see at what age the child can remember where the toy is in each room.

Newcombe found that the youngest children could not remember where to find the toy, but by two years old, the children could find the toy when provided with a visual cue.

In fact, Newcombe was able to document a gradual progression in the children’s ability to remember, but it was not until age five that the children were able to master the task fully.

“Episodic memory is important for social interaction,” Newcombe said. “It’s also important for parents and teachers to understand that even if their toddlers and preschoolers don’t remember that field trip to the zoo, they have still learned from the experience of seeing the animals.”