Bioethics Blogs

“Believe the children”? Childhood memory, amnesia, and its implications for law

How reliable are childhood memories? Are small children
capable of serving as reliable witnesses in the courtroom? Are memories that
adults recall from preschool years accurate? These questions are not only
important to basic brain science and to understanding our own autobiographies,
but also have important implications for the legal system. At the final
Neuroscience, Ethics and the News journal club of the 2014 Fall semester, Emory
Psychologist Robyn
led a discussion on memory development, childhood amnesia, and the
implications of neuroscience and psychology research for how children form and
recall memories.

This journal club discussion was inspired by a recent NPR
that explored the phenomenon of childhood amnesia. Why is it that most
of us cannot form long-term memories as infants, at least in the same way that
we can as adults? This fundamental question has fascinated many researchers and
psychologists and neuroscientists today are tackling it in innovative ways. Even
adult memory of the recent past is not nearly as reliable as most people (and
jurors) believe1
and while 2-year-old children can report long-term memories from several months
adults typically cannot recall memories from before age 3.5. The emergence of autobiographical memory may
arise from the realization of the self (~2 years) and acquisition of language
skills, but it seems to happen gradually. Childhood amnesia may actually be the
result of a slow conversion to recalling self-experienced episodes rather than
just events themselves.3


However, the general public has been shown to have a rather
poor understanding of memory,1 perhaps due to “common sense” beliefs
and cultural

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.