PSYCH 201 Rutgers Newark University Psychology Essay

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The Development of Infant Memory
Carolyn Rovee-Collier1
Department of Psychology, Rutgers—The State University of New Jersey,
Piscataway, New Jersey
Over the first year and a half
of life, the duration of memory
becomes progressively longer,
the specificity of the cues required for recognition progressively decreases after short test
delays, and the latency of
priming progressively decreases to the adult level. The memory dissociations of very
young infants on recognition
and priming tasks, which presumably tap different memory
systems, are also identical to
those of adults. These parallels
suggest that both memory systems are present very early in
emerging hierarchically over
the 1st year, as previously
thought. Finally, even young
infants can remember an event
over the entire “infantile amnesia” period if they are periodically exposed to appropriate nonverbal reminders. In
short, the same fundamental
mechanisms appear to underlie memory processing in infants and adults.
recognition; priming; infantile
amnesia; reminders
All people have a natural curiosity about their own memory. This
curiosity was tweaked several
years ago by reports in the popular
press of recovered memories from
early childhood. These reports also
renewed a long-standing debate
about whether infants can actually
remember for any length of time.
Some researchers argue that infants
possess only a primitive memory
system that cannot encode specific
events (Mandler, 1998), that early
development is characterized by
“infantile amnesia” (the absence of
enduring memories; Pillemer &
White, 1989), that children cannot
remember events until they can rehearse them by talking about them
(Nelson, 1990), and that children
younger than 18 months are incapable of representation (Piaget,
1952); others argue that the behavior of older infants and children is
shaped by their earlier experiences
(Watson, 1930) and that adult personality is shaped by memories of
events that occurred in infancy
(Freud, 1935). Surprisingly, this debate has been waged in the absence
of data from infants themselves.
This article reviews new evidence that infants’ memory processing does not fundamentally
differ from that of older children
and adults. Not only can older children remember an event that occurred before they could talk, but
even very young infants can remember an event over the entire infantile-amnesia period if they are
periodically reminded.
Before now, the major impediment to research on infants’ memory development was methodological: Tasks commonly used with
older infants were inappropriate
for younger ones. This problem is
not surprising when one considers
the considerable physical and behavioral changes that infants un-
Published by Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
dergo over the first 18 months of
life (see Fig. 1). Unfortunately, even
when the same task was used, researchers often changed stimuli
and task parameters nonsystematically; failed to equate age differences in motivation, stimulus
salience, task demands, or original
learning; or used identical instructions or prompts with infants who
differed in verbal competence.
Such practices made cross-age
comparisons precarious at best.
To sidestep these problems, my
colleagues and I have used two
nonverbal tasks to study infants’
memory development—a mobile
task with 2- to 6-month-olds and a
train task with 6- to 18-month-olds.
All task parameters are standardized and age-calibrated. Because
the memory performance of 6month-olds is identical on these
two tasks, comparisons between
the memory performance of older
and younger infants is not confounded by the shift in task.
In the mobile task, infants learn
to move a crib mobile by kicking
via a ribbon strung between the
mobile hook and one ankle (see
Fig. 2a). The rate at which they initially kick before the ankle ribbon is
connected to the mobile serves as a
baseline for comparison with their
kick rate during the subsequent
recognition test, when infants are
again placed under the mobile
while the ankle ribbon is disconnected. If they recognize the mobile
(see Fig. 2b), they kick above their
baseline rate; otherwise, they do
not. In the train task, infants learn
to move a miniature train around a
circular track by depressing a lever
(see Fig. 3). Again, baseline is measured, and retention is tested when
the lever is deactivated; infants
who recognize the train respond
above their baseline rate.
Infants ages 2 to 18 months have
been identically trained for 2 successive days in the mobile or train
task and tested after a series of different delays. They exhibit equiva-
Fig. 1. Infants 2, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18 months of age (from left to right). Note the dramatic differences between the younger and older infants.
lent retention after short delays,
but their duration of retention increases linearly with age (see Fig.
4)—a result not attributable to age
differences in activity or speed of
learning. At any given age, however, memory performance can be altered simply by changing the parameters of training. If given three
6-min training sessions instead of
two 9-min sessions, for example, 8week-olds remember for 2 weeks
(as long as 6-month-olds given two
6-min sessions), instead of 1 or 2
days only.
Age differences in retention that
have been obtained with other
paradigms similarly reflect differences in task parameters and not
in the underlying memory
processes. In the deferred-imitation paradigm, for example, infants watch an adult manipulate
Fig. 2. A 3-month-old during training in the mobile task and during a retention test. During training (a), the infant’s kicks move
the mobile by means of the ankle ribbon that is connected to the mobile hook. During baseline and all retention tests (b), the ankle
ribbon and the mobile are connected to different hooks so that kicks cannot move the mobile.
Copyright © 1999 American Psychological Society
Fig. 3. A 6-month-old infant during training in the train task. Pressing the lever
moves the toy train.
an object and are asked to imitate
those actions later. At 6 months
(the youngest age at which this
paradigm can be used), infants
who watch for 30 s in a single session successfully imitate if tested
immediately afterward, but not if
tested 24 hr later; if they watch for
60 s, however, they can imitate
successfully 24 hr later (Barr,
Similarly, 18-month-olds exhibit
deferred imitation for 4 weeks
after one session but for 10 weeks
after two sessions.
Because only cues that are highly similar to what is in a memory
can retrieve it, the informational
content of infants’ memories can be
determined by probing the memories with different retrieval cues
and seeing which ones are effective. We followed this strategy with
infants from 2 to 12 months of age
by testing them after a series of delays either with a new mobile or
train or in a context different from
where they were trained. Because
infants remember increasingly
longer as they get older (see Fig. 4),
we compared their memory performance after equivalent delays—
the shortest, middle, and longest
points on the forgetting function of
each age.
For infants between 2 and 6
months of age, only the original
mobile (or train) is an effective retrieval cue when testing occurs 1
day after training; a novel one is
not. For infants between 9 and 12
months of age, however, a novel
train can cue retrieval when testing
occurs within 2 weeks of training,
but not after longer delays (from 3
to 8 weeks), when only the original
train can cue retrieval. A similar
pattern is seen in deferred-imitation tests, although the duration of
retention in this paradigm is shorter overall. Six-month-olds will not
imitate if the test object is novel.
Twelve-month-olds will—but only
after delays on the order of minutes; after longer delays, they will
imitate only if the test object is the
one they saw originally (Hayne,
MacDonald, & Barr, 1997). The fact
Published by Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
that novel objects can cue retrieval
only after delays when they can be
clearly differentiated from the original training objects indicates that
older infants actively disregard the
difference. This emerging strategy
enables older infants to “test the
waters” and determine whether or
not new objects that they encounter
in the same context are functionally
equivalent to the old ones.
When the training and testing
contexts differ, infants exhibit a different pattern. At 3, 9, and 12
months of age, infants recognize
the training object in a different
context after all but the very
longest test delays. Apparently,
when the memory is weak, information about the context facilitates
its retrieval. Between 12 and 24
months of age, infants will also imitate an action that they saw in one
context (e.g., the day-care center)
when tested with the same object in
a different context (e.g., the laboratory) a few days later. Taken together, these findings reveal that
infants can remember what they
learn in one place if tested in another except after relatively long
delays. Parents, educators, and
public policy experts will be comforted to know that infants can
transfer what they learn at the daycare center or in nursery school to
home if given an opportunity to do
so before too much time has
Even if infants cannot recognize
a stimulus, like adults, they can still
respond to it if they are exposed to
a memory prime (or prompt) before the retention test. The prime,
an isolated component of the original training situation, such as the
original mobile or context, initiates
a perceptual identification process
Fig. 5. Decrease in priming latency
(graphed in log seconds) over the 1st
year of life. Open circles show results
on the mobile task, and filled circles
show results on the train task; 6-montholds were trained, primed, and tested
in both tasks. Each data point indicates
how long it took infants of a given age
to exhibit retention after being exposed
to a 2-min prime.
Fig. 4. Maximum duration of retention over the first 18 months of life. Filled circles
show retention on the mobile task, and open circles show retention on the train task;
6-month-olds were trained and tested in both tasks.
that facilitates retrieval of the latent
memory by increasing its accessibility. In a recent series of studies,
Hildreth and I primed memories
that infants had forgotten (i.e., their
performance on the long-term retention test was at baseline) and
then assessed how long it took for
the memories to be recovered (i.e.,
for infants to exhibit significant retention on the ensuing test;
Hildreth & Rovee-Collier, 1999).
Infants from 3 to 12 months of age
were trained in the mobile or train
task and were primed—only
briefly and only once—with the
original mobile or train 1 week
after they no longer recognized it.
Even though the time it took infants to forget the training event increased linearly with age (see Fig.
4), the latency of priming decreased
over this same period until, at 12
months of age, infants responded
instantaneously to the prime (see
Fig. 5).
This result reveals that the
speed of memory processing increases over the 1st year of life.
Even at 3 months of age, however,
infants respond instantaneously if
a prime is presented if the memory was recently acquired. Infants
who were trained with a threemobile serial list, for example, recognized only the first mobile on
the list 24 hr later—a classic primacy effect. If primed with the
first mobile immediately before
the 24-hr test, however, they also
recognized the second mobile; and
if successively primed with the
first two mobiles on the study list,
they recognized the third mobile
(Gulya, Rovee-Collier, Galluccio,
& Wilk, 1998).
Copyright © 1999 American Psychological Society
The notion that memory processing is mediated by two functionally different and independent
memory systems originated more
than a quarter-century ago with
clinical observations that amnesics
are impaired relative to normal
adults on recognition but not on
priming tests. Amnesics, for example, performed poorly when asked
to recognize which of four words
was on a list they had studied just
minutes earlier, but they performed
as well as normal adults when
given a word fragment (the prime)
and asked to complete it with the
first word that came to mind.
Typically, they completed the word
fragments with words from the
previous study list, even though
they could not recognize them.
This dissociation suggested that
recognition and priming tests tap
different underlying memory systems—one that is impaired in amnesia (explicit or declarative mem-
ory) and one that is not (implicit or
nondeclarative memory). Since
then, more than a dozen independent variables have been found to
differentially affect adults’ memory
performance on recognition and
priming tests, and memory dissociations have become a diagnostic for
the existence of two memory
For years, these memory systems were thought to develop hierarchically, with infants possessing
only the primitive, perceptualpriming system until late in their
1st year. This assumption was
based on the Jacksonian “first in,
last out” principle of the development and dissolution of function
(i.e., the function that appears earliest in development disappears last
when the organism is undergoing
demise), but empirical support for
it in the domain of memory came
only from studies of aging amnesics (McKee & Squire, 1993)—not
infants. Now, new evidence has
shown that all of the same independent variables that produce dissociations on recognition and priming tests with adults produce
dissociations on recognition and
priming tests with infants as well
(Rovee-Collier, 1997). For example,
priming produces the same degree
of retention after all training-test
delays, but the degree of retention
on recognition tests decreases as
the training-test delay becomes
longer for both adults (Tulving,
Schacter, & Stark, 1982) and infants.
This evidence demonstrates that
the Jacksonian principle does not
apply to the development of memory systems; rather, both systems
are present and functional from
early infancy.
Two recent studies from our
laboratory have demonstrated
that periodic nonverbal reminders
can maintain the memory of an
event from early infancy (2 and 6
months of age) through 1 1/2 to 2
years of age—-the entire span of
the developmental period thought
to be characterized by infantile
amnesia. In the first study (RoveeCollier, Hartshorn, & DiRubbo, in
press), 8-week-olds learned the
mobile task. Every 3 weeks thereafter until infants were 26 weeks
of age, they received a preliminary
retention test followed by a 3-min
visual reminder—either a reactivation (priming) treatment in
which they merely observed a mobile moving (a nonmoving mobile
is not an effective reminder) or a
reinstatement treatment in which
they moved it themselves by kicking. Their final retention test occurred at 29 weeks of age, when
the experiment had to be terminated because the infants outgrew
the task. Although 8-week-olds
forget after 1 to 2 days (see Fig. 4),
after exposure to periodic reminders, they still exhibited significant retention 4 1/2 months
later, and most still remembered 5
1/4 months later. Control infants
who were not trained originally
but saw the same reminders as
their experimental counterparts
exhibited no retention after any
The impact of periodic reminders is illustrated in Figure 6,
which shows the retention data of
individual 8-week-olds superimposed on the retention function
from Figure 4. When the experiment ended, four 8-week-olds had
remembered as long as expected of
2 1/4-year-olds, one had remembered as long as expected of 2-yearolds, and the infant with the “poorest” memory had remembered for
as long as children almost 1 1/2
years old. Had we been able to continue the study, some infants undoubtedly would have remembered even longer.
Published by Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
In the second study (Hartshorn,
1998), 6-month-olds learned the
train task, were briefly reminded at
7, 8, 9, and 12 months of age, and
were tested at 18 months of age.
Although 6-month-olds typically
forget after 2 weeks, after being periodically reminded, they still exhibited significant retention 1 year
later, at 18 months of age. In addition, 5 of 6 infants who were reminded immediately after the 18month test still remembered when
retested at 24 months of age, 1 1/2
years after the original event. These
infants had encountered only one
reminder (at 18 months) in the preceding year!
Unfortunately, the mobile task is
inappropriate for infants older than
6 months, and the train task is inappropriate for infants younger
than 6 months. However, because
periodic nonverbal reminders
maintained memories of these two
comparable events over an overlapping period between 2 months
and 2 years of age, it seems highly
likely that periodic nonverbal reminders could also maintain the
memory of a single event from 2
months through 2 years of age, if
not longer.
The preceding evidence raises
serious doubts about the generality
of infantile amnesia, as well as the
accounts that have been put forth
to explain it. Clearly, neither the
immaturity of their brain nor their
inability to talk limits how long
young infants can remember an
event. As long as they periodically
encounter appropriate nonverbal
reminders, their memory of an
event can be maintained—perhaps
forever. Because a match between
the encoding and retrieval contexts
is critical for retrieval after very
long delays, however, a shift from
Acknowledgments—This research was
supported by Grants R37-MH32307 and
K05-MH00902 from the National
Institute of Mental Health.
1. Address correspondence to
Carolyn Rovee-Collier, Department of
Psychology, Rutgers University, 152
Frelinghuysen Rd., Piscataway, NJ
08854-8020; e-mail: rovee@rci.rutgers.
Fig. 6. Maximum duration of retention of individual 2-month-olds who were
reminded every 3 weeks through 26 weeks of age (open squares) relative to the maximum duration of retention of unreminded infants (solid line, from Fig. 4). The
dashed line, fitted by eye, extrapolates the original retention function through 30
months of age. By following each arrow to a point on the function and reading down
to the x-axis, one can determine the age equivalent for the duration of retention of
each reminded 2-month-old.
nonverbal to verbal retrieval cues
or any other contextual change—
either natural or perceived—would
lessen the probability that a memory encoded in infancy would be retrieved later in life. In addition, because contextual information
disappears from memories that
have been reactivated once or
twice, older children and adults
may actually remember a number
of early-life events but not know
where or when they occurred. In
short, even if an appropriate retrieval cue were to recover an early
memory later in life, a person
would probably be unable to identify it as such.
Recommended Reading
Campbell, B.A., & Jaynes, J. (1966).
Reinstatement. Psychological Review, 73, 478–480.
Gulya, M., Rovee-Collier, C., Galluccio, L., & Wilk, A. (1998). (See
Hartshorn, K., Rovee-Collier, C.,
Gerhardstein, P., Bhatt, R.S.,
Wondoloski, T.L., Klein, P., Gilch,
J., Wurtzel, N., & Campos-deCarvalho, M. (1998). The ontogeny of long-term memory over
the first year-and-a-half of life.
Developmental Psychobiology, 32,
Hayne, H., MacDonald, S., & Barr, R.
(1997). (See References)
Rovee-Collier, C. (1997). (See References)
Copyright © 1999 American Psychological Society
Barr, R., Dowden, A., & Hayne, H. (1996).
Developmental changes in deferred imitation
by 6- to 24-month-old infants. Infant Behavior
and Development, 19, 159–170.
Freud, S. (1935). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Clarion Books.
Gulya, M., Rovee-Collier, C., Galluccio, L., & Wilk,
A. (1998). Memory processing of a serial list by
very young infants. Psychological Science, 9,
Hartshorn, K. (1998). The effect of reinstatement on
infant long-term retention. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University, New
Brunswick, NJ.
Hayne, H., MacDonald, S., & Barr, R. (1997).
Developmental changes in the specificity of
memory over the second year of life. Infant
Behavior and Development, 20, 233–245.
Hildreth, K., & Rovee-Collier, C. (1999). Decreases
in the latency of priming over the first year of life.
Manuscript submitted for publication.
Mandler, J.M. (1998). Representation. In W. Damon
(Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2.
Cognition, perception, and language (pp.
255–308). New York: Wiley.
McKee, R.D., & Squire, L.R. (1993). On the development of declarative memory. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and
Cognition, 19, 397–404.
Nelson, K. (1990). Remembering, forgetting, and
childhood amnesia. In R. Fivush & J.A.
Hudson (Eds.), Knowing and remembering in
young children (pp. 301–316). Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press.
Piaget, J. (1952). Origins of intelligence in children
(M. Cook, Trans.). New York: International
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events recalled by children and adults. In H.W.
Reese (Ed.), Advances in child development and
behavior (Vol. 21, pp. 297–340). New York:
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Rovee-Collier, C., Hartshorn, K., & DiRubbo, M.
(in press). Long-term maintenance of infant
memory. Developmental Psychobiology.
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Priming effects in word-fragment completion
are independent of recognition memory.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning,
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Watson, J.B. (1930). Behaviorism. Chicago:
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