Infantile amnesia, sometimes referred to as childhood amnesia, refers to the inability of adults to consciously remember personal experiences that contain information about what happened, when they happened, and where they happened (referred to as EPISODIC MEMORY).
This forgetting/amnesia/impairment of episodic memory is thought to be due to a lack of development in the infantile brain which precludes the storage of episodic memories (i.e. the part of the brain responsible for storing episodic memories has not developed sufficiently in the infant to enable such storge) or to impairments in the memory retrieval system in the brain (Alberini and Travaglia, 2017).
According to Joseph (2003), infantile/childhood amnesia affects the recollection of memories up to about the age of three-and-a-half years. (In other words in the general population, adults, on average, have difficulty remembering things that happened to them before this age.
Furthermore, in relation to the extent to which memories are affected by infantile/childhood amnesia:
- Females tend to be able to recall episodic memories from earlier in their lives than are males
- The period of infantile/childhood amnesia is greater for verbal memories than for visual memories.
- The period of infantile/childhood amnesia is greater for negative memories than for positive memories.
Research has also shown that severe and repeated childhood trauma can adversely affect memory due to the damaging effects of toxic stress on brain regions involved in memory and, in particular, the amygdala and hippocampus.
Based on this, Joseph (2003) carried out a study to investigate if individuals who had experienced significant and repetitive childhood trauma had longer periods of infantile/childhood amnesia, on average than individuals from the general population.
INDIVIDUALS TRAUMATIZED IN EARLY CHILDHOOD, ON AVERAGE, HAVE A LONGER PERIOD OF INFANTILE/CHILDHOOD AMNESIA THAN DO THOSE FROM THE GENERAL POPULATION:
The study found that: those individuals who had been traumatized in early life, on average, had an infantile/childhood amnesia period lasting until they were about six years old (this is two-and-a-half years longer than the infantile/childhood amnesia period typically experienced by those from the ‘normal’ population).
Also, it was found that individuals who had been traumatized had particular deficits associated with memory for faces.
However, in a reversal of what has been found in the general population (see above), females who had been traumatized had longer infantile/childhood amnesia periods, on average, than males who had been traumatized (i.e. on average, traumatized males could recall earlier episodic memories than their traumatized female counterparts.
Alberini CM, Travaglia A. Infantile Amnesia: A Critical Period of Learning to Learn and Remember. J Neurosci. 2017 Jun 14;37(24):5783-5795. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0324-17.2017. PMID: 28615475; PMCID: PMC5473198.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).