Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Early Childhood Amnesia

As suggested earlier a structurally viable and intact hippocampus is needed for the expression of explicit memory and for “declaring one’s memory?that define(s) that experience” (Eichenbaum & Cohen, 2001, p. 168) even if that declaration is linked with inner state words and thoughts. Adults, when retrospectively asked the date of their earliest generic childhood or episodic memory, state they have memories from as early as 3-4.64 years of age onward (Bruce, Dolan, Phillips-Grant, 2000; McCabe, Capron, & Peterson, 1991; Pillemer & White, 1989). However, when asked about specific events surrounding the birth of a younger sibling, 40% of an adult sample reported memories for this event as young as two years of age. The remainder of a sample did not have memory for their sibling’s birth at two years of age (Eacott & Crawley, 1999). The authors concluded that an earlier elicited specific cue-dependent event memory that is significant and/or important enough but not traumatic or overwhelming during early childhood can be remembered as early as two years of age and can be elicited with some degree of detail and accuracy in a significant proportion of the adult population. Cue independent memory requests such as “what is your earliest childhood memory?” may require memory processing in the adult that is not available to earlier childhood memory.

Amnesia for the earliest of life events evolves slowly. Normally two year olds can remember events that had occurred just six months before (Fivush, Gray, Formhoff, 1987). Four year olds as a rule can remember events that had commonly occurred at two years of age (Fivush & Hamond, 1990). With verbal cuing eight year olds can remember events of concern at 40, 46, 58, 70 months (3 ½ – 5 ½ years) of age (Fivush & Schwarzmueller, 1998). Usually eleven and twelve year olds can remember the details of a significant event like a preschool fire and fire alarm that had occurred eight years before at 3 ? and 4 ? years old with minimal prompting (Pillemer, Picariello, & Pruett, 1994). A steady loss of peripheral and contextual details or things that were said to a person at the time of an event or what had happened concurrently with an event seems to normally transpire and lose vividness over time. Children ordinarily as old as 13 years of age can recall central details of an injury requiring emergency medical treatment occurring as young as two years of age but not the peripheral details (Peterson & Whalen, 2001). It may be that contextual or situational dependent memories from under three years of age are more unstable and less accessible to later verbal declarative processes and retrieval (Fivush & Hamond, 1990). This may be due to age-dependent limitations in verbalizing and declaring the recall of events in children under the age of three years. A typical sample of three year olds was found to experience more difficulties in recalling action sequences observed during a dramatic a play despite cue dependent prompting and opportunities for both verbal and behavioral reenactment and expression when compared with five year olds (Fivush, Kuebli, & Clubb, 1992).


Bruce, D., Dolan, A., & Phillips-Grant, K. (2000). On the transition from childhood amnesia to the recall of personal memories. Psychological Science, 11(5), 360-364.

Eacott, M.J., & Crawley, R.A. (1999). Childhood amnesia: on answering questions about very early life events. Memory, 7(3), 279-292.

Eichenbaum, H., & Cohen, N.J. (2001). From conditioning to conscious recollection. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fivush, R., Gray, J.T., & Fromhoff, F.A. (1987). Two year olds’ talk about the past. Cognitive Development, 2, 393-409.

Fivush, R., & Hamond, N.R. (1990). Autobiographical memory across the preschool years: toward reconceptualizing childhood amnesia. In: R. Fivush & J.A. Hudson (Eds.), Knowing and remembering in young children, (pp. 223-248). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fivush, R., Kuebli, J., & Clubb, P.A. (1992). The structure of events and event representations: developmental analysis. Child Development, 63, 188-201.

Fivush, R., & Schwarzmueller, A. (1998). Children remember childhood: implications for childhood amnesia. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 455-473.

McCabe, A., Capron, E., & Peterson, C. (1991). The voice of experience: the recall of early childhood and adolescent memories by young adults. In: A. McCabe & C. Peterson (Eds.), Developing narrative structure (pp. 137-173). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Peterson, C., & Whalen, N. (2001). Five years later: children’s memory for medical emergencies. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, S7-S24.

Pillemer, D.B., Picariello, M.L, & Pruett, J.C. (1994). Very long-term memories of a salient preschool event. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, 95-106.

Pillemer, D.B., & White, S.H. (1989). Childhood events recalled by children and adults. In: H.W. Reese (Ed.) Advances in child development and behavior-volume 21 (pp. 297-340). New York: Academic Press.