The memories that define who we are

Terry Madeley, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Terry Madeley, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Psychologist Patricia Bauer explains the importance of autobiographical memory and how early it develops in children, and why it may be important to our mental health.

Meeri Kim: Much of your research focuses on autobiographical memory, defined as the memories of significant personal events and experiences from an individual’s life. What is known about how early this type of memory develops in childhood?

Patricia Bauer: Autobiographical memories are the events and experiences that make you who you are today. Adults will typically describe milestones like graduations, births, marriages, or buying their first home. If I ask an adult about one of their autobiographical memories, I am likely to get a full narrative with context along with why the event was so important to them.

“Autobiographical memories are formed by the time children are three years of age, but they are lost to forgetting at a faster rate than in adults.”

But when you’re talking to young children, you’re not likely to get that vivid story. What we typically see in children are much more skeletal representations of past events. If you’re being liberal about this, as soon as children start talking and making references to themselves in the past, they’re producing autobiographical memories. But others will say no, it’s not autobiographical until they can put those life events into some sort of narrative context that allows the memories to take on true personal significance and meaning.

MK: How much longer does it take for the narrative kind of autobiographical memory to develop in children as compared to the more sparse kind?

PB: You’ll get kids at two years of age who will tell you, “I went to the park.” They’re giving you a story about themselves, and it’s something that happened in the past. Now, does it have that aspect of personal relevance and significance? Well, probably not. It’s not until people are 8, 9, or 10 years of age that they can reliably produce narratives about events from the past that have that full, meaningful narrative that we think about as autobiographical memory.

MK: What does your own research tell us about autobiographical memory? For example, you had a recent study that involved children’s recollections about a devastating tornado in the past.

PB: I used to be on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, and a 1998 tornado did extensive damage to the nearby small town of St. Peter, Minnesota. My colleagues and I conducted a study where we had mothers interview their children about the tornado itself and about two non-tornado events that happened within three months’ time. About half of the children were under 6 years old, and the other half were older.

When we went back 10 years later, everybody remembered the tornado which wasn’t surprising. Children who had been older than 6 also remembered most of the non-tornado events. But the children who had been younger than 6 — and still within that period from which we have few memories, the childhood amnesia period — remembered fewer of those non-tornado events.

“The extent to which we have a coherent autobiographical narrative — in other words, the way we define our identity by past experiences — is actually related to our mental health.”

These results fall in line with the idea that very young children have memories that are more susceptible to forgetting. Young children have very immature cognitive and neural structures, and we know that some of the structures involved in autobiographical memory are slow to develop with age. So there is evidence that autobiographical memories are formed by the time children are three years of age, but they are lost to forgetting at a faster rate than in adults.

MK:  What are the big-picture implications of better understanding how autobiographical memory works?

PB: There’s a growing body of literature that suggests the extent to which we have a coherent autobiographical narrative — in other words, the way we define our identity by past experiences — is actually related to our mental health. Being able to identify who you are, and those specific events that have made you who you are, is related to how well you cope with everyday life stressors. Measures of well-being have been associated with academic success, vocational success, and many other outcomes. So understanding how autobiographical memory works throughout development can be important from the standpoint of maintaining positive, healthy psychological status among adults.

Patricia Bauer serves as Senior Associate Dean for Research in Emory College, and is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology. Her research focuses on the development of memory from infancy through childhood, with special emphasis on the determinants of remembering and forgetting; and links between social, cognitive, and neural developments and age-related changes in autobiographical or personal memory.

 

The Flux Congress acts as a forum for developmental cognitive neuroscientists to share their findings, expand their knowledge base, and be informed of translational approaches. This conference, taking place in Portland September 16-18, 2017, is designed for scientists who use neuroimaging techniques to understand age related changes in brain function and structure.

The interviewee, Patricia Bauer, spoke about self-derivation of new knowledge through memory integration during the Flux Congress.