Headlines Published on 26 September 2011

Title Researchers find kids' origin of memories matures in later years

Researchers in Germany have discovered that children develop the ability to remember past events and the origin of those memories during their childhood and adolescence. Presented in the journal Child Development, the findings show that the capacity to remember the origin of memories is a long process that grows during a child's teenage years but only matures when they become an adult. The study provides key insight into how the reliability of children's testimony could influence the legal arena.

A child can remember meeting a person and the context in which they met that person © Shutterstock
A child can remember meeting a person and the context in which they met that person
©  Shutterstock

Researchers from Saarland University say a child can remember meeting a person and the context in which they met that person. Overall, the team assessed 18 children (ages 7-8), 20 adolescents (ages 13-14) and 20 young adults (ages 20-29), asking them to complete 2 parts of a memory task.

Part one consisted of pictures on a computer screen, where the subjects had to judge how many times the pictures were repeated by pressing the 'new' button for first-time presentations and the 'old' button for repetitions.

Part two was conducted after a 10-minute break. Subjects were asked to review more pictures, some of which were viewed in part one and some of which were new. The researchers requested that the participants judge each item solely based on its repetition status; that is, items being repeated from the first part and presented for the first time in the second part had to be judged as 'new', while items repeated within the second part had to be judged as 'old'. The team also kept an eye on the subjects' brain responses throughout the two-part task by using an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap.

Doing this enabled the researchers to assess developmental changes in how the origins of memory are recalled, what the experts say was the second part of the task, independently from age differences in memories for events (part one). How the youths retrieved and assessed things remembered was measured as well.

According to the researchers, there were not many age differences in the retrieval processes involved in recognising repeated pictures (part one of the task). So the brain responses of children aged 7 to 8 were comparable to those of adolescents
and adults.

It should be noted, however, that children were immature in this area when the origins of memory were evaluated. Also, while adolescents and adults showed similarities, only adults showed maturity in this area. The data suggest that the brain structures that support the recall of memory sources in children and adolescents improve and mature with time.

'The study has important implications for people who take an interest in children's and adolescents' abilities to distinguish between multiple sources of memories,' the researchers say. 'Parents, teachers, and those who work in the legal system should be aware that adolescents' memories are still likely to be distorted by distracting memories, for example by suggestions when giving testimony.'

More information:

  • Child Development
  • Saarland University

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