Cultural differences in childhood amnesia

Photo by Flickr user Irregular Shed. Click for sourceChildhood amnesia is the phenomenon where we are generally unable to remember the earliest years of childhood. This is often assumed to be purely because the brain is too underdeveloped to successfully store and organise memories but an interesting study from 2000 reported that the extent of childhood amnesia differs between cultures and sexes.

Cross-cultural and gender differences in childhood amnesia

Memory. 2000 Nov;8(6):365-76.

MacDonald S, Uesiliana K, Hayne H.

In two experiments, we examined cross-cultural and gender differences in adults’ earliest memories. To do this, we asked male and female adults from three cultural backgrounds (New Zealand European, New Zealand Maori, and Asian) to describe and date their earliest personal memory. Consistent with past research, Asian adults reported significantly later memories than European adults, however this effect was due exclusively to the extremely late memories reported by Asian females. Maori adults, whose traditional culture includes a strong emphasis on the past, reported significantly earlier memories than adults from the other two cultural groups. Across all three cultures, the memories reported by women contained more information than the memories reported by men. These findings support the view that the age and content of our earliest memories are influenced by a wide range of factors including our culture and our gender. These factors must be incorporated into any comprehensive theory of autobiographical memory.

This doesn’t mean that brain development plays no role, of course, but it raises the question of how many of the things we recall from childhood are influenced by culture.

For example, memories that seem genuinely to be from the early years may appear that way due to us being brought up with the retelling of family stories or from seeing photographs and subsequently absorbing them as our own memories thanks to source amnesia.

It could be that this form of social remembering differs between cultures or is influenced by the sex of the child which may encourage people to report earlier or later memories, or alternatively, may actually strengthen genuine memories as they are re-told during our early years.

pdf of full text of culture and childhood amnesia study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

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