Infantile “Amnesia” is Dead!

by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.

In academic circles, a long-standing prejudice against the reliability of all early and very early memory is collapsing. The least-likely period for memory to function, the intrauterine period, increasingly illuminated by ultrasound, has made it possible for visionary experimental psychologists to show that memory and learning systems are functioning. Babies still in the womb are signaling that they have become familiar with rhymes repeated to them daily over a four-week period. Likewise, immediately after birth, babies exposed to parents’ voices, musical passages, soap opera themes, news program sounds, sounds of their native language, as well as tastes and smells introduced in utero are all treated as familiar, that is, learned and remembered from weeks and months in the past.

Memory experts have continued to overlook the prima facie evidence provided by two- and three-year old children recalling specifics of their birth when they are first able to speak. This evidence, published in magazines for childbirth educators and parents in 1981, was never taken seriously in scientific circles. Ironically, for the last 16 years, we have had memory experts denying birth memory while new waves of three-year-olds were proving them wrong!

Psychologists have been enthralled with the theory of infantile amnesia since it was stated by Sigmund Freud in 1916. The popular observation that people rarely remember anything that happened to them before their third or fourth birthday turned an idea into dogma. It was further justified by theories of noted Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, about the limitations of newborn intelligence and its development in discreet stages. After 40 years, these ideas are now crumbling under the weight of experimental evidence. Tearing down the wall of illusion regarding infant memory has taken a handful of brilliant experimental psychologists, completing over three dozen crucial experiments, and a full decade of time. As a result, infantile amnesia is dead.

A key idea in medicine and psychology which made it difficult to accept any sophisticated early use of the mind was the idea that the immature and unfinished brain could not support memory and learning. A further prejudice was that true episodic memory could not be tested with preverbal infants. These notions made it easy to avoid research and to dispute the evidence as it appeared. What the experimental psychologists have managed (against heavy odds) to prove is that children age three, age two, and age one are all capable of both immediate and long-term recall of specific events in their lives. Infants tested at two, four, and six months can recall details about hidden objects, their location, and size.

Ability to recall procedures involving a series of steps, after long delays, depends not on age but on the same factors and conditions which improve recall in older children and adults, such as the nature of the events, the number of times they experience them, and the availability of cues or reminders. Experts now conclude that babies are constantly remembering and learning what they need to know at the time; their memories are not lost, they are continually updated as learning progresses.

The old belief that infants are mentally incompetent has isolated them and delayed discovery of their elementary abilities. More importantly, this belief has obscured the evidence for higher perception, telepathic communication, and subtle forms of knowing which we have discovered in various forms of psychotherapy. With another big barrier down, perhaps parents and professionals will be able to meet real babies more often.


Annie Murphy Paul adds more and says, “Some of the most important learning we ever do happens before we’re born, while we’re still in the womb. Fetal origins is a scientific discipline that emerged just about two decades ago, and it’s based on the theory that our health and well-being throughout our lives is crucially affected by the nine months we spend in the womb. Now this theory was of more than just intellectual interest to me. I was myself pregnant while I was doing the research for the book. And one of the most fascinating insights I took from this work is that we’re all learning about the world even before we enter it.

“First of all, they learn the sound of their mothers’ voices. Because sounds from the outside world have to travel through the mother’s abdominal tissue and through the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus, the voices fetuses hear, starting around the fourth month of gestation, are muted and muffled. One researcher says that they probably sound a lot like the the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the old “Peanuts” cartoon. But the pregnant woman’s own voice reverberates through her body, reaching the fetus much more readily. And because the fetus is with her all the time, it hears her voice a lot. Once the baby’s born, it recognizes her voice and it prefers listening to her voice over anyone else’s.

“But it’s not just sounds that fetuses are learning about in utero. It’s also tastes and smells. By seven months of gestation, the fetus’ taste buds are fully developed, and its olfactory receptors, which allow it to smell, are functioning. The flavors of the food a pregnant woman eats find their way into the amniotic fluid, which is continuously swallowed by the fetus. Babies seem to remember and prefer these tastes once they’re out in the world. In one experiment, a group of pregnant women was asked to drink a lot of carrot juice during their third trimester of pregnancy, while another group of pregnant women drank only water. Six months later, the women’s infants were offered cereal mixed with carrot juice, and their facial expressions were observed while they ate it. The offspring of the carrot juice drinking women ate more carrot-flavored cereal, and from the looks of it, they seemed to enjoy it more.

“Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life — the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, even the emotions she feels — are shared in some fashion with her fetus. They make up a mix of influences as individual and idiosyncratic as the woman herself. The fetus incorporates these offerings into its own body, makes them part of its flesh and blood. And often it does something more. It treats these maternal contributions as information, as what I like to call biological postcards from the world outside.

Why would undernutrition in the womb result in disease later? One explanation is that fetuses are making the best of a bad situation. When food is scarce, they divert nutrients towards the really critical organ, the brain, and away from other organs like the heart and liver. This keeps the fetus alive in the short-term, but the bill comes due later on in life when those other organs, deprived early on, become more susceptible to disease.

12:05 But that may not be all that’s going on. It seems that fetuses are taking cues from the intrauterine environment and tailoring their physiology accordingly. They’re preparing themselves for the kind of world they will encounter on the other side of the womb. The fetus adjusts its metabolism and other physiological processes in anticipation of the environment that awaits it. And the basis of the fetus’ prediction is what its mother eats. The meals a pregnant woman consumes constitute a kind of story, a fairy tale of abundance or a grim chronicle of deprivation. This story imparts information that the fetus uses to organize its body and its systems — an adaptation to prevailing circumstances that facilitates its future survival. Faced with severely limited resources, a smaller-sized child with reduced energy requirements will, in fact, have a better chance of living to adulthood.”

An overwhelming number of studies prove that your baby’s brain is not a blank slate! While in utero your unborn baby is feeling, learning and remembering.

What matters most seems to be how you feel toward your baby when you are pregnant.

Dr. Thomas Verny speaks of a newborn baby who turned his head away in rejection to his mothers breast although it was offered, but breastfed willingly from a stranger with no problem. The mother admitted that from the start she didn’t want to be pregnant or have a baby. Wow, powerful illustration of the point! Love and nurture your baby even in utero.

Also, hormones related to anxiety and stress transfers into your bloodstream and can even affect your fetus. By trying to maintain a calm attitude during pregnancy you will be doing yourself a favor and protecting your baby from these negative emotions.

It seems that “extreme maternal distress” can even have physical consequences such as increased risk of prematurity and low birth weight. This is important to remember when pregnancy hormones heighten the emotions you feel.


The important role of the father has to be mentioned too. It has been said that “the best gift a child can receive is a father who loves its mother”. A sensitive, gentle and loving father will care for mom and baby physically and emotionally resulting in your health and happiness, and by extension – your unborn baby’s.

Finally, don’t forget the reminder to get enough rest. When I am physically tired I’m an emotional wreck!

So, even though this is the most quiet he will ever be, baby in womb is taking it all in. Your parental attachment, reading and talking to him affectionately – even music in the womb affects your baby’s well being.

Your unborn baby is already listening, observing and remembering. No matter what your schedule will demand of you after his birth, you are now with him 24/7. Cherish this time during your pregnancy and make it count for both of you!

For Further Study

The Death of “Infantile Amnesia” – The chief architects of the demise of “infantile amnesia” have been Patricia Bauer, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, and Andrew Meltzoff. Their work and the work of other contributors are listed here to allow for further study of the subject in depth.

Bauer, P. and Mandler, J. M. (1989), One thing follows another: Effects of temporal structure on 1- to 2-year-olds’ recall of events. Developmental Psychology, 25(2), 197-206.

Bauer, P. J. and Mandler, J. (1992), Putting the horse before the cart: The use of temporal order in recall of events by one-year-old children. Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 441-452.

Bauer, P. J. and Wewerka, S. S. (1995), One- to two-year-olds’ recall of events: The more expressed, the more impressed. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 475-496.

Bauer, P. J. (1996), What do infants recall of their lives? Memory for specific events by one- to two-year-olds, American Psychologist, 51 (1), 29-41.

Drummey, A. B. and Newcombe, N. (91995), Remembering versus knowing the past: Children’s explicit and implicit memories for pictures. Journal Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 549-565

Hayne, H. and Findlay, N. (1995), Contextual control of memory retrieval in infancy: Evidence for associative priming. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 195-207.

Hayne, H. and Rovee-Collier (1995), The organization of reactivated memory infancy. Child Development, 66(3), 893-906.

Mandler, J. M. and McDonough, L. (1995), Long-term recall of event sequences in infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 457-474.

Meltzoff, A. N. (1988), Imitation of televised models by infants. Child Development, 59, 1221-1229.

Meltzoff, A. N. (1995), What infant memory tells us about infantile amnesia: Long-term recall and deferred imitation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59, 497-515.

Meltzoff, A. N. and Gopnik, A. (1997), Words, Thoughts and Theories, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Peterson, C. and Bell, M. (1996), Children’s memory for traumatic injury. Child Development, 67(6), 3045-3070.

Rovee-Collier, C. and Fagan, J. (1981), The retrieval of memory in early infancy. In L. Lipsitt, (Ed.), Advances in infancy research, volume 1. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Rovee-Collier, C. and Lipsitt, L. (1982), Learning, adaptation, and memory in the newborn. In P. Stratton (Ed.) Psychobiology of the human newborn (pp. 147-190). New York: Wiley.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1987), Learning and memory in infancy. In J. D. Osofsky(Ed.), Handbook of infant development (2nd ed.) (pp. 98-148). New York: Wiley.

Rovee-Collier, C. and Hayne, H. (1987), Reactivation of infant memory: Implications for cognitive development. In H. Reese (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 20, 185-238.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1989), The joy of kicking: Memories, motives, and mobiles. In Solomon and others (Eds.), Memory: Interdisciplinary approaches, 151-180. New York: Springer.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1996), Shifting the focus from what to why, Infant Behavior and Development, 19(4), 385-400.



-Devin Baker 2012-04-12 14:03:58


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