Mind

Infant Recall

By Jocelyn SelimAug 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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Even though few of us remember anything from before the age of 3, those memories may still be there. We just lack the necessary words to get at them, say developmental psychologists Harlene Hayne and Gabrielle Simcock of New Zealand's University of Otago. To explore how young children form memories, the researchers let a group of toddlers play with a custom-built toy equipped with levers, flashing lights, and sounds. When questioned about the toy a year later, the subjects reverted to an earlier style of language. "Every child had a much larger vocabulary, but not a single one used a word he or she hadn't known when the toy was originally encountered," says Hayne. When shown photographs of the toy, however, the kids could accurately re-enact how they had played with it. Apparently their ability to remember exceeded their ability to talk about it. Hayne believes that language functions like a card-catalog system for memory. Experiences that occur before we have language seem to vanish because they get no index, she says: "The books are lost on the shelves. Whether you find one is hit or miss."

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