Psychological theory has evolved considerably since the days of Freud, Jung, and even Erikson with respect to understanding the process and trajectory of memory development in children. While these classic psychoanalysts provided insight into the psychological and social influences that shape human development, advances in the sciences have permitted researchers to expand our understanding of memory development. By focusing on the cognitive variables influencing memory development in children, researchers have been able to identify more precisely the ages at which certain attributes of memory develop.
More importantly, researchers have also been able to determine what variables influence positive memory development and which factors—organic and otherwise–may contribute to arrested memory development. In this paper, the traditional perspectives of the classical analysts are reviewed and recent research on the topic of the process and trajectory of memory development in children is considered in an effort to explain how theories of memory development have evolved.
The famous psychoanalyst Freud (2003) had his own conception of the nature and function of memory when he formally described memory as a “system of notation” that is one of the critical cognitive functions of human beings (p. 69). In general, Sigmund Freud believed that memories begin to accumulate even before the conscious executive tasks of cognition are being performed, and the eventual retrieval of these early memories from infancy and childhood, rescued during the process of psychoanalysis, would provide an adult with insight that would explain his or her neuroses. In fact, Freud argued that instead of being developed later, memories began to impress themselves within the infant as early as two months of age (Sandler & Sandler, 2003). Furthermore, Freud insisted that all infants shared a common memory of the moment at which they realized themselves to be individuated from the parent (Sandler & Sander, 2003). In other words, this memory of separation and the way in which the adult reflected upon and narrated this memory was one of Freud’s primary theoretical preoccupations and the basis of many other theories.
Another psychoanalyst, Karl Jung (in Papadopoulos, 1992) built upon Freud’s conceptualization of memory by positing the existence of two distinct types of memory– a “highly differentiated memory store” and a “non-differentiated memory store.” The two types of memories differed in that the former is “directly related to acceptance of material by the ego… as it [attempts to] find a match [in]…the collective unconscious,” while the latter is not available to immediaterecall but remains accessible to recognition (p. 161). Like Freud, Jung believed that memory formation begins in early infancy, and that the more traumatic an individual’s memories are, the more troubled he or she is likely to be as an adult. Thus, Freud and Jung both argued that the psychological treatment of a troubled adult necessarily begins by excavating the earliest memories of infancy and childhood. They did not seem to be particularly interested, however, in understanding or advocating optimal environments for memory development.
Erikson filled this gap and enriched understanding about memory in childhood still more by focusing on the conditions that either promote memory development or frustrate it. In his classic book on childhood development, Erikson (1985) expressed his belief that each of the eight epigenetic stages of human development is influenced substantially by the degree to which the primary caregiver of the infant, child, or adolescent is able to provide “consistency [and] continuity” of positive and stimulating inputs that support normal physical growth and ideal psychological, social, and intellectual maturation (p. 247). Like his analytic predecessors, Erikson believed that adult difficulties could be traced to traumatic childhood memories. Unlike Freud and Jung, however, Erikson believed that caregivers could and should establish optimal conditions for positive memories. The recollection of past successes, Erikson suggested, provided the necessary antecedents for successful development in the next stage of growth.
In many ways, Erikson’s seemingly simple observation about constancy, stimuli, and support remains relevant and summarizes the conclusions reached by researchers studying a wide variety of memory-related influences and functions among infants, children, and adolescents. Contemporary researchers have made significant contributions to a modernized theory of memory development; however, the common thread that appears to link all of the conclusions and emerging ideas is that the richer and more stable the inputs provided to an individual during infancy and childhood, the more sophisticated, diversified, and reliable that individual’s memory-related cognitive functions will become over time. While contemporary researchers differ significantly in their opinions regarding the age at which memory becomes operational, they do tend to agree regarding what factors constitute rich inputs. Scholars accept that a stimulating environment in which the caregiver consistently provides a variety of visual, auditory, and tactile cues is crucial for establishing a foundation upon which the functions of memory can be built (Daman-Wasserman, Brennan, Radcliffe, Prigot, & Fagen, 2006).
Similarly, as Erikson (1985) hypothesized in his psychosocial theory of infant, child, and adolescent development, modern theorists studying development tend to agree that infants, in particular, need to experience the consistent and caring presence of a caregiver who is able to meet the child’s basic needs in order to begin establishing positive imprints in young people’s memory banks (Roisman, Tsai, & Kuan Hiong, 2004). Studying self-confidence and security levels in adults, Roisman et al. (2004) found that those subjects who demonstrated the highest level of self-confidence and security in adulthood generally had more positive memories from childhood than counterpart subjects whose memories from childhood were either negative or nebulous. In addition to the consistent and caring presence of an adult, other rich inputs become necessary as the infant becomes a child, developing physically, mentally, and psychologically. As Hoerl (2007) explained, for instance, one of the most consistent features of optimal memory development in children who have developed verbal capacities is the degree to which the primary caregiver provides the child with opportunities to talk about past events, emotions, and experiences. The more an event is discussed, the more it becomes entrenched in a narrative, and the narrative, in turn, becomes calcified as a memory (Hoerl, 2007).
Beyond what is known and hypothesized about the critical variables that are present in the infant’s and child’s environment, a great deal of recent research focuses on the physical factors that can influence memory development for better and for worse. While people often think of memory as a noun, memory is also a verb; it has active properties. As a verb, memory is understood to be a process and function that is transacted by the frontal lobe of the brain among younger people (Wolfe & Bell, 2007). Wolfe and Bell (2007) determined that frontal lobe activity was a predictive variable for working memory as early as eight months. Over time, as a child progresses into adulthood, memory functions also begin to be performed by the hippocampus and structures in the medial temporal lobe (de Haan, Mishking, Baldeweg, & Vargha-Kadem, 2006). Thus, it follows that if any of the brain’s structures are compromised by illness or by injury, it is likely that memory will be impaired (Wolfe & Bell, 2007).
The brain’s physical structures are not only affected by illness or injury, however. The degree to which a child is provided with tasks, stimuli, and challenges that stimulate brain functioning also help shape the physical structures of the brain, reaffirming the hypothesis that a rich environment provides the best setting for memory development (Wolfe & Bell, 2007). Both parents and teachers play critical roles in the memory development of children, particularly between the ages of two and five. By providing learning and social activities that promote “regulatory and attentional behaviors,” Wolfe and Bell (2007) explained that parents and teachers begin to shape children’s cognitive functions, especially those related to memory, by emphasizing the executive tasks that are related most closely to memory and recall (p. 3).
Thus far, the areas of general agreement regarding theories of memory development in infants and children have been addressed. What remains to be mentioned is the area of cognitive research in which there is less agreement, and that is the ages at which infants and children begin to exhibit memory operations and a consciousness of memory. This is an area in which current research is focused, particularly as more kinds of memory are identified (de Haan et al., 2006). de Haan and his colleagues, for example, hypothesized that the existence of certain types of memory can be verified as early as the first month of life. Recognition memory—that is, the ability of the infant to remember the face of a caregiver—is one of the earliest kinds of memory to develop (de Haan et al., 2006).
As research about memory advances, there is an increasing emphasis on distinguishing the junctures at which types of memory develop. De Haan et al. (2006) propose, much as Erikson proposed about psychosocial development, that memory forms in stages; “normal [memory] development,” they wrote, “involves a sequence in which a form of semantic-like memory emerges first, whereas the characteristics of episodic memory develop only later with progressive development of the hippocampus” (p. 374). Researchers are also interested in the strategies that children use at different stages in development to recall and discuss memories (Kron-Sperl, Schneider, & Hasselhorn, 2008). One sees, then, that much remains to discover about memory. While a great deal of overlap exists between contemporary theories about memory and the classic psychoanalysts’ conceptualization about the development, meaning, and role of memory, the future of memory development research lies in the intersection between the influences of the infantile and childhood environment and brain structures.
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