Last October I wrote a post called “Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?” It was about Jay’s memories of Philadelphia and particularly his daycare in the city. At the time I wrote the post, Jay was bringing up his daycare from time to time, in random ways, like recognizing the lid of the plastic container we used to use to bring his lunch to school. I was curious to see how long it would be until Jay had forgotten daycare completely.
Well, earlier this week Caroline conducted a follow-up experiment and it seems that those memories are gone. While I was out running she showed Jay pictures of him with his daycare teachers. Blank. Nothing. He couldn’t produce their names and he gave no hint that he even recognized them. She did the same with pictures of our friends from the city. Same result.
Of course, pictures aren’t the same as seeing a person in the flesh, in context. We’re visiting Philadelphia later this month and Caroline plans to bring Jay by his old school. We’ll see if that jogs anything in his tiny hippocampus.
Here’s another example of the rate at which Jay’s memories slip away. From April 2011-August 2011 I read Jay the children’s book Caps for Sale just about every single night before bed. It got to the point where I could pause anywhere in the book and Jay could fill in the next word. And not just major nouns like “lunch” and “tree.” Even little tiny words like “and,” and “on.”
One night a couple weeks ago Jay and I were picking out his bedtime books. I pulled out Caps for Sale. It had been at least six months since we’d read it.
The easiest single line to remember from Caps for Sale is the jingle the peddler shouts as he walks through town, “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” I prompted Jay with it on the first page. He just looked at me. Then we came to the first turning point in the story, where the napping peddler has his caps stolen. I asked Jay who’d taken them. When he answered, “I don’t know,” I thought maybe he was playing with me. A minute later I couldn’t believe I had to tell him that it was the monkeys.
Slate recently ran an interesting summary of research on childhood memory called “I Remember Mama and Dada.” The article, by Nicholas Day, says that babies form memories at much earlier ages than conventional wisdom would have it. They don’t carry those memories with them into adulthood, but they do carry them for a while.
Day writes, “Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.”
The article further notes that while two-year-olds can recall memories of events that happened a year earlier, most people’s earliest permanent memories don’t set until about age three-and-a-half.
The article also cites research which argues that there may not be a strict biological limit on how early in life we’re capable of forming permanent memories. Parents play a big role in this. Day writes that parents who spend a lot of time retelling stories from a child’s past can help a child form permanent memories of those stories. “Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event.”
Of course, this raises the obvious questions that attend all early life memories—Do we remember the event itself or do we remember the photographs of the event and the stories we tell about it? And where is the line between buttressing a memory and creating a new one? They are fun riddles to entertain, even if it seems clear that all memories, even my memory of what I had for lunch yesterday, are refracted through the process of remembering them.
Returning to Jay, halfway through writing this piece I went downstairs to make tea. While I was at the stove Jay, Wally, and, Nicole, their nanny, came back from library story time. I wanted to confirm that Jay didn’t really know Caps for Sale anymore so I asked him a few questions:
“Caps for sale…” I began.
“…fifty cents a cap,” Jay finished.
“Who steals the peddler’s caps,” I asked Jay.
“The monkeys,” Jay answered.
“And how does the peddler get his caps back?”
“He stomps his feet and jumps up and down,” Jay replied, as if it were the most commonplace knowledge in the world.
I was stunned. We’d only read the book once recently and that was more than two weeks ago. How did Jay reacquire this knowledge all of a sudden?
Then Nicole came into the kitchen. “Do you know that book, too?” she asked. “Because they read it at story time today.”