Dec. 22, 2011 -- The ability to remember our earliest childhood experiences may be in place sooner than experts thought, according to new research.
Some children who played a unique game when they were just 2 years old were able to remember it six years later, the researchers found.
Other researchers who have focused on early memories, however, have said that adults' earliest memories usually start from when they were about 3 1/2 years old.
"We've got relatively objective evidence that people can recall things that happened as young as age 2," says researcher Fiona Jack, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand. "It's not common but [the study] shows it can happen."
The new findings may have implications for the theory of memory development. The new research may also help in legal settings, where it can be important to know if a memory is genuine.
The research is published in the journal Child Development.
Early Experiences & Early Memories Study
Jack and her colleagues report on 46 children who were ages 27 months to a little over 4 years. When they were ages 2 to 4, they all played a unique game called the Magic Shrinking Machine. The researchers watched them play.
The game includes a large black box designed just for the lab research. To make the machine work, the child turns it on by pulling a yellow lever, selecting a toy from an open suitcase, and putting it in a hole in the top of the box. Next, they turn a green handle on the side. When a bell rings, the child opens a red door in the front of the box to retrieve a smaller but identical version of the toy.
Jack and her colleagues interviewed the children and their parents six years later to figure out how well they recalled playing that game.
Only one-fifth of the kids recalled the event. Those who remembered included two children who were under age 3 when they played. About half the parents recalled the game.
Both the parents and the children who had the early memories gave the researchers very similar reports.
"We know they are recalling the event accurately," Jack tells WebMD. "We were there."
What may have helped some children remember? Talking about the game to the children soon after it occurred may have helped preserve the memory, the researchers say.
Bottom line? The basic capacity of remembering our experiences may be in place for some of us by age 2, Jack says. However, she says, this autobiographical memory is not fully developed at that age. That takes time.
Early Memories: Upsetting Events Even More Likely to Be Recalled?
Others who research early memories say the new finding fits in with their own recent conclusions. "These findings contribute to an emerging body of evidence showing that many children can reliably recall events many years later from when they had been only 2 and 3 years of age," says Carole Peterson, PhD, a professor of psychology and university research professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
In her research, Peterson interviewed children soon after they had been injured seriously enough to need emergency room treatment. They had broken bones or serious cuts, for instance. "Five years later all of the children could recall a lot about these injuries, and most of it was accurate," she tells WebMD.
She compared the kids' memories with interviews of adult witnesses to the injuries. The adult interviews were done shortly after the incidents.
"The children who were at least 28 months of age all remembered accurately," she says.
She has also found in another study that children recalled events from when they were just 2 years old.
While fun events like the magic game can be remembered by some children long-term, highly upsetting or stressful events such as the emergency room visit are even more likely to be recalled, Peterson says.
The new findings confirm that at least a few children can recall some experiences that happened when they were just 2 years old, says Robyn Fivush, PhD, professor of psychology at Emory University, and another expert in the field.
However, she also points out that some children, not all, recalled the game. "It was only nine children, 20%, which means that 80% could not recall it," she says.
Take-Home for Parents
Parents who want their child to remember certain early activities should talk about it after it happens, the experts agree. "Talking with children about [important] events increases the likelihood that the event will be remembered later in their lives," Peterson says.
According to Fivush, "Memories which are talked about within the family are better recalled as children grow older, so if there are special memories that you want your child to cherish, bring them up in conversation and reminisce with your child about these events."
Unique experiences are likely to be remembered best, she says: "Think of all your childhood birthday parties. If you recall a single one, it is probably because it was different in some distinctive way from the others."