Connecting memories in childhood

Psych professor ran a four-year study on the ability of children to build memories.

Psychology professor Nora Newcombe and a team of psychologists conducted a study intended to determine the earliest beginnings of memories in children ranging from 16 months to 5 years old.

The study was developed in 2008 and continued until 2012 before being published recently. The test focused on episodic memory – when a person can recall a specific experience, event or moment.

Children were taken to a room, for example, the “rainbow room,” and were shown four different containers varying in size, shape and color. They were told that one of the containers contains a toy, for example, a bubble blower, and the other three containers were empty. The children were then directed to select which container had the toy.

Next, the same children were taken to a different room with a different experimenter.  The containers in the room were the same as the previous room, but now a different container had a different toy.

“The question is, having seen all this and after leaving and coming back to these two rooms, if they remember which container has the toy and in which room,” Newcombe said.

Small children are known to have semantic memory – a more fact-based memory that attaches meaning to objects or characters – at an early age.

“They can learn that the kitty gets mad when you pull its tail and that the kitty’s name is Kitty, and all that kind of thing,” Newcombe said. “Those are the facts about the world that aren’t contingent, like if you go to grandmother’s house and there’s another cat, it’s still going to scratch you if you pull its tail.”

Contingent facts are much harder to master, especially for children, Newcombe said. This kind of memory is referred to as episodic memory, which is what the research set out to investigate in the children.

Children used in the study were recruited through advertisements, mother-infant play classes and some were contacted through lists of parents from commercial vendors. There were also a number of parents that volunteered their children for the study.

“They have a fun time and are willing to come out,” Newcombe said.

The study took place at Ambler Campus, as it is more “family-friendly” and parking is easier, Newcombe said.

The results of the experiment determined that there is possibly an onset of episodic memory around the second year of life, but it does not fully mature until almost 5 years of age.

When given heavy cuing such as “find where you can blow bubbles,” children at about 2 years old were able to determine the specific container that held the toy. Children younger than 2 years old were unable to remember the specific container, and the transition between the two groups was abrupt.

“It actually took until the kids were 4 years old until they could reliably go to the correct container,” Newcombe said.

Logan Beck can be reached at

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