How Kids Learn to Remember

What’s your earliest autobiographical memory? If you are like most people, it’s probably a significant event from your preschool years: the birth of a sibling, a first pet, a scary fall from a jungle gym, a grandparent’s death. The time before that event seems lost to us. Even when we see photos of our infant selves, they prompt little recognition of who we were as babies.

Experts used to believe that this ‘infantile amnesia’ occurs because babies are incapable of forming memories. They speculated that the brain didn’t have the capacity to make such memories yet, or that remembering only happens once an infant’s language skills are more developed. But new research suggests that babies actually remember things as early as 2 months old, even if they can’t talk about them later.

Part of the issue is that there is not just one kind of memory. In order to function in the world, children have to remember and recall a lot of different things. They need to remember facts (like names for things), which experts call ‘semantic memory’. They also need to recall how to do things, which is known as ‘procedural memory’. And they need to remember past events, which are categorized as ‘episodic/autobiographical memory’.

Psychology professor Vanessa LoBue says that infants and toddlers have very active semantic and procedural memories. They hear and store away words for the people and things around them and respond to verbal cues quickly. They are also quick to make connections between actions and their effects (such as pushing a button to make a toy play music). Plus, with a little help, they can recall these things many months later, even if they haven’t done an activity in a long time.

These updated ideas about infantile memories suggest that developing spiritual practices with infants may give them resources for life, despite lacking specific autobiographical memories of doing them. What they will remember are the actions and the words, which can act as ‘cues’ to the practices in the future.

So think about the spiritual values you would like to be part of your child’s life and create simple activities or routines to support them. Perhaps you want to encourage appreciation for the natural world. You might regularly help your child stroke a plant leaf with their hand and repeat a short phrase (“beautiful world”, “natural wonder”). Later, when your child is older and hears those words, they will recall the sensations of touching the leaf and the positive feelings they evoked.

Or perhaps being peaceful is a spiritual priority. You might develop a centering routine by placing a flickering candle or other focus object in front of your baby and sitting quietly with them on your lap for a few minutes. Repeating this activity every day acts as a kind of ‘training’ that can be prompted in the future by using the same focus object as a reminder of the routine.



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