The lack of recall of autobiographical memories dating to infancy

The observation that infancy is not remembered was noted with interest by students of the mind, and probably by others as well, throughout the ages (Augustine 400; Rousseau 1798; Freud 1901). The experimental data confirm folk psychology: adults do not remember autobiographical episodes that had occurred prior to the age of about 3 or 4 years, and report that their inner personal narratives begin to make sense (if they ever do) only about the age of 6 or 7 years (Dudycha and Dudycha 1941; Wetzler and Sweeney 1986; Nelson 1992; Eacott and Crawley 1998). Claims for the 'rediscovery' in adulthood of the memories of early infancy should be treated with great caution, as they could reflect "false memory.

Why do individual life histories begin with a period of oblivion? Over the years, several types of explanations for infantile amnesia have been proposed. They involve different conceptual frameworks (biological, cognitive, psychosocial), and some of them refer to different "phases of memory ("acquisition, "consolidation, retention, "retrieval).

One class of explanations suggests that the problem lies already at the acquisition phase: early personal memories are not retained to begin with, because the brain systems that are required for autobiographical, "episodic memory simply do not mature before the age of 3-4 years (Nadel and Zola-Morgan 1984; Nelson 1998; "declarative memory). A related suggestion implicates both acquisition and retention and rests on cognitive rather than neurological arguments. It claims that the infant's mind cannot form the appropriate mental structures that serve as inner frameworks for organizing new information in a sensible manner. The generic term for such abstract mental structures is 'schemata' (Bartlett 1932; Piaget 1969; Cohen 1996). In the absence of mature schemata, so goes the argument, autobiographical experiences cannot be stored in an effective, retrievable form. A version of this argument considers the intense episodes of infantile memory inconsistent with the categories of the adult schemata, hence incapable of being assimilated into the adult memory (Schachtel 1947; see also Freud's suppression hypothesis below). Similar suggestions invoke the lack in infancy of linguistic competence, which is assumed to be required in encoding autobiographical episodes (Nelson 1992); immaturity of a 'me' system, postulated to be necessary for integration of episodic information into the internal personal nar-rative (Howe and Courage 1997); or, similarly, immaturity of a 'self-memory system', postulated to hold the autobiographical memory base together with the current goals of the self (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000).

Deficiencies in retrieval comprise another class of explanations for infantile amnesia. Here the most famous argument is that early memories are formed but later suppressed to become non-retrievable, because of their damaging emotional load; furthermore, those early memories that are recalled are actually 'screens', which hide the real, difficult experience (Freud 1901). No experimental evidence has been reported so far to support this psychoanalytical account.1 Similarly, there is no firm experimental evidence to support the popular view that special methods, such as hypnosis, can retrieve repressed or forgotten infantile memories.

And there are also psychosocial explanations, which search for the roots of infantile amnesia within the framework of the interaction of the individual with

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