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Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Memory

Critical Thinking Activities


Can Infants Remember?

What is your earliest memory? If you are like most people, you are unable to recall anything from your infancy. For many years, theorists and researchers believed that infants simply lack the ability to form any memory more complex than what is required to recognize their parents, family members, and other familiar and persistent stimuli. In fact, since standard methods of memory testing found no evidence that infants could store and retrieve much before age 3, the matter appeared settled.

However, clever and insightful testing methods devised by Carolyn Rovee-Collier and her colleagues put the matter in a new light. In her test, Rovee-Collier would place an infant in a crib, attach a ribbon to the infant's foot, and note the number of kicks the infant gave. Rovee-Collier then connected the other end of the ribbon to a colorful mobile hanging over the crib. When the infant kicked, the mobile would move. Infants are naturally delighted with such motion and will kick with gusto. Kicking rates went up dramatically when the ribbon was attached to the mobile, compared with the baseline kick rate when the ribbon was not attached to the mobile.

[The movies below require the Flash 6 plug-in]

In the first scene, you are looking at a child of about 4 months who is experiencing the ribbon attached from the foot to the mobile for the first time.

Video courtesy C. Rovee-Collier

After a few minutes, the infant learns that moving the foot activates the overhead mobile. From that point onward, kick rate increases as the association between kicking and the movement of the mobile strengthens.

Video courtesy C. Rovee-Collier

After the association between kicking and the movement of the mobile has been established, the mobile is removed. The classical opinion on infant memory is that within a short period of time (perhaps a few minutes), the memory of the association fades. The design of the experiment is reflected in the diagram below. In the baseline stage, the rate of kicking is recorded when the ribbon is not attached to the mobile. After the baseline stage the acquisition of the behavior is established when the ribbon is attached. An immediate test follows, then a retention interval that can last minutes, days, or even weeks. During the retention interval, the ribbon and mobile are not present. At Test 2, they are both reintroduced. If the infant quickly reacquires the high rate of kicking, it can be inferred that he or she remembers the link between kicking and the movement of the mobile. If, on the other hand, it takes as long to reacquire the high rate of kicking as during the baseline stage, we can assume that the link between ribbon and mobile was forgotten.


Rovee-Collier realized that while the ribbon and mobile task was appropriate for younger infants, it was inappropriate for infants of a year or more in age. To test them, Rovee-Collier devised a new task that would capture the interest of the older infants, while maintaining the basic logic of the experiment. In this second task, a toy train was placed in a box and outfitted with a switchplate that, when rocked back and forth, would activate the train for a moment and light the box. Only constant rocking of the switch plate would keep the train in motion. The infant subject was placed on the mother's lap and, after a baseline measure of switchplate rocking, was encouraged to observe an older sibling operate the train.

Video courtesy C. Rovee-Collier and Psi Chi

Video courtesy C. Rovee-Collier and Psi Chi

In contrast to the predictions of both Freudian and classic Piagetian theorists, Rovee-Collier found that infants as young as 2 months showed some memory for the mobile. Older infants exposed to the train task also showed evidence of memory for the task by rocking the plate at rates significantly over baselines for their age. A summary of the results for both tasks is presented below, indicating that infants as young as 2 months can retain a memory of an event for as long as a week, while infants as old as a year and a half can retain a memory for as long as 3 months.

Define the phrase "infantile amnesia." Prior to Rovee-Collier's work, why did researchers assume that infants were incapable of forming episodic memories?
Rovee-Collier's work suggests that while infants are obviously not as skilled at storing and retrieving information as adults, the basic process is more or less the same and infants can learn and recall much earlier than originally thought. Assume for a moment that you are a parent of a newborn. What implications does her work have for your own parenting behavior? What might you do differently after reading about Rovee-Collier's work?

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