Forgotten childhood memories can be retrieved

We may be unaware that they ever took place, but our early childhood experiences are stored in our unconscious memory and affect us as we grow older. Researchers have studied the awareness and long-term memory in little children and have found ground-breaking new knowledge.

2014.02.25 | Tine Bagger Christiansen

Forgotten childhood memories can be retrieved. Photo: AU Photo

We all have memories from the early stages of childhood that we do not have access to through our awareness, and we cannot account for those experiences. But the experiences affect us even though we have no recollection of them. New research from the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus University shows that we do not completely forget the experiences we had very early in life.

“The results of our research are very important in relation to the concept of childhood amnesia, which stipulates that we cannot remember anything that happened before we turned three. But can we really be so bad at remembering our early childhood experiences, if these experiences are so significant for our personal development? It is especially interesting, because we are now able to document the fact that we are actually affected by early childhood experiences, even though we do not recall them as such,” says Associate Professor Osman Skjold Kingo from the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Center on Autobiographical Memory Research at Aarhus University.

There is a certain lower limit for how far back we can retrieve memories, but researchers have not yet been able to determine why. It is what happens when a child is three or four years old that is of particular interest.

What the researchers have been focusing on in this study is the so-called unconscious memory, which we do not have access to through our awareness or language. It is very hard to verify if what we remember from our childhood is actually true or not, but the researchers have found a way around this and have tested the children’s memories. 

Memories can be retrieved
The researchers studied a group of children in two stages: The first study was not focused on memory as such, but on the children’s perception of geometrical shapes. The children were 12 months old at this stage. The researchers used this part of the study as a reference for the second stage, which took place a couple of years later when the children were three and a half years old. This time they focused on the children’s memories and what they were able to recall from the first stage of the study. Both times, the children were divided into two groups, a researcher was assigned onto each of the groups, and both times the study was carried out in the same room. 

The first study was conducted by one of two male researchers. The second study, however, was conducted by a female researcher. She showed the children a video recording of the study they had previously taken part in when they were much younger. But the video recording did not show the children; it was only a recording of the researcher who had examined them as well as a recording of another researcher.

First, they asked the children if they could recognise the person they had played with before, but this yielded no verbal response. Rather, the answer was found by looking at the recordings of the eye tracker that the children were placed in front of. The eye tracker revealed where the children’s attention was focused when watching the recording.

Earlier research shows that people tend to either very clearly steer their gaze away from what they know or have previous experiences with, or they fix their gaze on what they know.

Clear results

Overall, there was a clear tendency among the children to fix their attention on the person they had not seen before. And there was a clear difference in the direction of their gaze. Scientifically we know that this is an expression of an unconscious memory, a memory that affects the child’s awareness and behaviour – but the child is not directly aware of the memory and would not be able to account for whether he or she has met this person before or not. But the fact is that these children did in fact remember the researcher that they had met when they were only 12 months old, even though they could not recall meeting him.

“When the children steer their gazes away from the person they know, it suggests that they do not find that person to be particularly interesting, because they already know him, and then it is more interesting for them to focus on the other guy,” explains Osman Skjold Kingo and proceeds:

“As a researcher it was fun to get such clear and surprising results. And I don’t think I have ever checked my results this many times just to make sure that they were correct – but they are.”

The research results are unique in this area. No one else has previously been able to document memories of a specific event among children this young and over such a long time span.

120 children were asked to participate, 77 of whom were willing to return. The group of children in the second stage of the study was limited to 50.

The research results were recently published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. The study was conducted with support from the Danish National Research Foundation.

Directors of research:
Associate Professor Osman Skjold Kingo
Professor Peter Krøjgaard
Postdoc Søren Risløv Staugaard

Further information

Osman Skjold Kingo

Osman Skjold Kingo


Tel.: 87165862

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