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Recommended reading Memory development

What are memories?

Memories are the way that our brain stores experiences. They influence who we are and how we function in the present and future.

Babies begin forming memories before they’re born. From birth, they recognise and turn to mum and dad’s voices, and may respond to familiar songs and music.

Types of memory

We have different types of memory including implicit, explicit, short-term and long-term memory.

Some people mistakenly think that babies are too young to be affected by traumatic events such as family violence, because they’re not able to remember them.

Here we’ll explain the difference between implicit (also known as non-declarative) and explicit (declarative) memory. We’ll also explain how early negative experiences can have a major impact on babies, influencing how they might think, feel and behave as they grow.

Implicit memory

The first type of memory to develop is implicit memory. Emotionally meaningful experiences are stored in baby’s implicit memory. These can be memories of good or traumatic experiences.

Although we have no conscious recollection of implicit memories, they can influence later experiences.

When something happens that reminds our brains of an earlier experience, although we’re not aware of it, our brain remembers the emotions and physical sensations associated with the experience.

We may not be aware that these reactions are influenced by memory.

An example of how implicit memory works

Picture a baby lying in a crib while its parents are physically fighting and shouting at each other in the next room. In later years, although the child (or adult) won’t consciously remember the fighting, their brain is likely to respond to triggers in the environment and produce similar emotions and physical sensations.

The child might hear a song that was playing at the time of the fighting, or a smell associated with the early experience, which may trigger similar fearful responses.

The child probably won’t know why they’re feeling this way and won’t make any sense of these emotions and physical sensations. Although they can’t consciously remember the event, it has affected them.

Parents’ implicit memories

Parents’ memories of how they were parented influence how they respond to their own children. If their unconscious, implicit memories are of their parents responding harshly to their distress when they were babies, they may respond to their own baby’s distress in a harsh way, without being aware of what has shaped this response.

In the same way, a baby will store memories of being cared for in a loving, responsive way. Every loving moment they experience will be stored as a memory for life. Although they may not remember the actual experiences, they’ll have a memory that someone is there to meet their needs and that they’re worthy of love in their relationships.

This will shape their expectations of future relationships. Children and adults who have implicit memories of loving, consistent, responsive care as babies are likely to expect their friends and partners to treat them well and to have an inbuilt sense of treating others well. Their early, loving experiences will shape how they parent their own children.

‘The early period in a child’s life has been described as being both “unrememberable and unforgettable” because while the events cannot be recalled consciously, they are built into a person’s expectations and behaviour and are thus not forgotten.’

Watt 2001, cited by Gerhardt 2004,

Explicit memory

Explicit memory begins to develop in the second year of life and continues to mature over a time. This is why, for many of us, our first memories are of experiences when we were 3 or 4 years old.

Explicit memory organises memories in a way that we can consciously remember. We’re able to use words to describe experiences, we can place the experiences in a sequence, and we’re able to build a story that makes sense of what happened — including, who, what, where, when, why and how.

Some studies show that people tend to remember experiences associated with negative emotions more than positive experiences. This may be a survival mechanism that helps us remember and avoid situations that may be threatening.

Helping children build explicit memories

Parents can help children build memories by providing detailed descriptions of past experiences, and involve their child in contributing to these stories (once they’ve developed enough language).

Whānau can also help shape their children’s memories by sharing stories with them.

Supporting children through stressful events

The way parents support a baby or young child through a stressful event can shape how the memory of the event is processed. Parents can ease the stress of a traumatic experience, such as a medical procedure, by comforting and reassuring their baby or child.

Talking with a child about a traumatic experience may also help them to understand and cope with the experience and build a more accurate memory.

Summary

  • From birth, babies are affected by hearing and seeing family violence.
  • Implicit memory cannot be consciously recalled, but can affect later experiences.
  • Implicit memories of their own parenting experiences influence how parents care for their own babies.
  • Explicit memories can be consciously remembered and described.
  • The way that parents support their child at a stressful time can shape how the child’s memory of the event is processed.

Further information

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