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Where a child’s memory comes from, how it develops

Where a child’s memory comes from and how it develops

Professor Harlene Hayne from Otago University’s Psychology department has been awarded a grant from the competitive Marsden Fund to help her continue a programme of pioneering research into early memory development in children.
The new project will chart the fundamental changes that occur in human memory over the first four years of life. The results will have important implications for current theories of memory development and childhood amnesia.

The phenomenon of infantile amnesia, the inability of adults to recall their infancy and early childhood, has been taken as evidence of discontinuity in memory development. Recent explanations for this problem have focused on social transitions in such areas as acquiring language and the socialisation of memory through parent-child conversations. These mechanisms have long been thought to have a unique impact on the way human memory develops.

Hayne will examine the largely neglected view that the basic processes underlying changes in memory during infancy that later contribute to infantile amnesia are not uniquely human. Rather, they involve more a more fundamental process common to all mammalian species.

She proposes that age-related changes in the specificity of effective retrieval cues contribute to a developmental increase in the accessibility of memory during the third year of life. The project will therefore have significant implications for the question of whether developmental changes in memory are continuous or discontinuous.

A significant feature of her approach is the use of a visual recognition procedure to study memory from the age of three months through to four years. This will allow the first systematic documentation of developmental changes in the encoding, long-term retention, and efficacy of retrieval cues, that take place from very early infancy through to childhood.

Professor Hayne has already established an outstanding reputation, both nationally and internationally, for her research in this area. Her research group includes Dr Julien Gross, a post-doctoral researcher. The award is worth $150,000 a year for the next three years.

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