Monthly Archives: December 2009

More Tidbits on Memory…and a Clip You Can Watch WITH Your Kids

Finger w-1.string 
 So many fantastic thoughts and comments lately. What a great readership! Some really interesting questions asked/points raised about memory. They jogged my own noggin' (noticeably on the decline in recent years) of a few related studies. Here are the nutshell versions:

1. One of the ways researchers get memory in people of all ages is to compare how easy it is to learn something for the first time, compared to when we have to learn it again. For example, in lots of traditional memory studies with adults, the researchers gave their participants lists of words or word pairs (sock-orange) and looked at how long it took to learn them. Then after some substantial delay, when the participants no longer consciously remembered the list, they brought them back and looked at how long it took them to learn the same list to perfect recall again. The difference in the time it took at time 1 and time 2 is termed "savings" which basically shows that you unconsciously retained or REMEMBERED some of the list. For more on this idea and the guy behind it try here

Of course, we're not going to give a baby a list of words to learn, but just think of the task in terms of something that babies CAN do. For example, in one study infants of just a few months were put in a crib and their leg was connected to a string (such as by a a loop around their ankle). The point was to see how long it took the baby to figure out that if they kicked that leg vigorously, something fun would happen (e.g. a clown doll would appear, or they'd hear a funny sound, the lights would flash etc.). Then after a delay, they brought the babies back and put them in the same crib, same set-up etc. If they got the "leg kick = funny event" link more quickly, the researchers would conclude that the babies REMEMBERED what they needed to do. Oh there's always a way to get inside that amazing baby head…

2.  The stuff you have to remember to do in future – take your medicine at 2pm, TAKE A HOLIDAY GIFT IN FOR YOUR CHILD'S TEACHER BEFORE THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL (I'm just sayin'…) – is called prospective memory (as opposed to retrospective memory, for things in the past). It's one of the first things to go when you get older. That's your head's up. 

3.  Yes, there is such a thing as photographic memory – when you can picture in your mind the actual material you want to remember, in the place where you first learned it. That's as in, you are writing an exam and you can picture in your head the page in the text book where you read it AND YOU CAN SCAN THAT PAGE TO FIND WHAT YOU ARE AFTER. It's not exactly common. Usually fades by later childhood (11 or so). Any takers?  Did any of you do this?  I definitely relied on this in school, even later on, but it got way, way harder as the years went by. I'm not sure how good a measure of photographic memory this is…but if you have a few minutes on your hands (ha ha ha…) or insomnia, Try this

4.  Another favourite line of research (honestly, can I really call it a fave when there are so many?) specifically targets childhood amnesia. Here's a link to the primary researcher's homepage if you want to have a browse. I cannot help but highlight one of her coolest recent findings. Ya know how excited I get about these things…

The researchers visited young children (about 2-3 years of age) in their homes and taught them a novel event. A machine would actually "shrink" a toy you put inside it. Read: Child puts a big toy in the front opening of the machine, then closes the door. Some flashing lights and machine like sounds go off, then they open door and find a miniature version of the toy inside. Yes, of course, it's been replaced with the mini one by way of the back door and another researcher or something, but boy do they go for it!  It's amazing!!!. This all happens at an age when language is fairly limited but then develops amazingly quickly. They know because they actually measure the children's language skills. 

Then after 6 months or 1 year, they go back to visit the same children and basically probe to see if they remember what happened on that first visit, now "ages" ago as far as they are concerned. The probing includes asking them to talk about it (verbal measure), asking them to pick out pictures of e.g. some of the toys they shrunk (visual recognition) and asking them if they remember how to work the machine (behavioural re-enactment). And oh yes, they measure their language skills again. Get this: Even though children remember what happened (as shown by their performance on the visual recognition and behavioural measures – both non-verbal), their memories are limited to the vocabulary they had AT THE TIME the shrinking machine thing took place. That is, even though they now had WAY better vocabularies, they described the event only in terms of the language they had AT THE TIME THEY EXPERIENCED IT!  This suggests of course that our so-called infantile amnesia is linked to our limited capacity to code or store our experiences in words when our vocabularies are so very limited. Note that as the children had good non-verbal memory of the event, they clearly registered it. It's just that they were limited in their ability to access those memories verbally. So perhaps this helps to explain why we later can no longer access those early memories and integrate them into our autobiographical memories when we are older and rely more on storing and accessing memories verbally. Hmmm…

6. Finally, to help keep your internet-using guilt at bay and to end the week on a lighter note, here's a fun clip on memory that you can actually watch WITH your kids! 

Now just remember to watch it. Good weekend.


“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not” — M.Twain

After the last post and your comments, I'm completely into thinking about memory processes and talking more with you about them. Have you guys seen this? I saw this video a while back but it came back to me as I was thinking more about memory and how odd and awesome it is. If you haven't seen it, prepare to be blown away.

And here's an episode of Radiolab on Memory and Forgetting. It is so, so good. You guys know how much I love Radiolab. This episode does such a nice job of explaining how memory in the brain works — they have a knack for providing just the right metaphors. They also elaborate on LeDoux's work that I referenced in the last post on emotional memories. Many of the comments on the last post made some allusion to how amazing it was that we (or our children) DON'T remember things that seem so… memorable. In this Radiolab episode, you'll here more about how common it is to "lose" memories, how biased the memories we DO retain really are, and how easily we can create "false" memories. Fascinating stuff…

– Isabela

More on autobiographical memory: What do we remember from our childhood and why?

I was writing a comment back to the few readers that responded to the last post, part of which mentioned autobiographical memory, and then realized it was WAY too long for a comment and I might as well share it with everyone. So, here are a few more thoughts about the research on autobiographical memory:

In the comment section, @sheila asked some GREAT questions, the first of which was: How do scientists measure memories and trace them forward to deem them accurate or not? There are a bunch of ways that developmental scientists look at these things, some will seem pretty darn boring because it's not like you can ASK an infant if he remembers something. So, what researchers do is, for example, show a baby a shape one day and then test whether he "remembers" it a few days later by looking at his gaze and the extent to which it implies "recognition". Or they will teach an 18 month old a sequence of play events (hit this, then this, then pop goes the toy) and then test him at 2 years old and see if he knows how to re-enact that play sequence. Ta DA! Memory! If you look at the article I linked to in the last post, they give you a bunch of details (if you can't access it and are interested enough, leave a comment and I can send the pdf file).

Sheila also described the common experience of not being able to differentiate details of your childhood memories from stories or pictures that parents and other people tell you as you are growing up. This is indeed the norm in terms of how most people think of childhood memories. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, children DEVELOP the ability to remember in different ways. At first, young babies and children tend to "encode" small, concrete details about their world. Of course, that's because that's how they understand the world around them at that early stage of cognitive development — in concrete terms, not abstract. Also, their working memory capacity (the RAM of our minds) is so limited at this age that they can't keep much in mind at the same time for very long at all. As children grow, they are able to hold more in storage, to keep more things in the mind's RAM for longer periods of time. With that developmental progression comes older children's and adults' abilities to encode more "gist-like" or "fuzzy trace" memories. So, we as adults are more likely to remember episodes in terms of their general meaning to us, their emotional valance, and so on. Both children and adults "store" memories in both the more literal (e.g., details about a task, episode, etc.) and "gist-like"  (semantic, elaborate, "relational) styles, but young children rely much more on the former and adults more on the latter. (You guys don't want me to spout on about the fact that there actually is no "storage" per se in the brain, like a treasure chest that gets opened and shut; instead it's more about patterns of neural firings that scientists are still pretty in the dark about).

@Beth wondered in the comments whether early memories can be triggered by trauma; implicitly I thought she was also asking if more traumatic experiences are better remembered. Yes, to have ANY experience stick and become a lasting memory, there needs to be SOME level of emotion involved. There's a whole lot of cool neuroscience to back this claim up — but the summary is that you need certain parts of your more "primal, emotional" brain to be firing during an event to encode it into long-term memory. So it is indeed possible that those more emotionally-charged experiences are the ones you remember best. But also, those are the experiences that will be talked about most in your family oftentimes, which keeps those memory traces alive and these re-enactments, in turn, continue to strengthen those neural memory traces.

But there is also the extreme cases of emotional memories; these are the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD have experienced INSANELY traumatic things (abuse, war, etc.) and in some of these cases, their emotional centres OVER-fired and shut down the part of the brain that participates in storing information and forming memories during the trauma. As a result of this emotional flooding, these people often DON'T remember the traumatic events themselves (nice evolutionary survival mechanism, if you ask me). PTSD sufferers often have NO semantic memory (they can't actually remember WHAT happened), but they have EMOTIONAL traces still "stored." So, for example, a loud bang from a garbage truck can trigger seemingly irrational panic/anxiety attacks in a veteran who has experienced horrors in combat, but he won't know why because he won't be able to trace the memory back to the initial experience. (For more info, Joseph LeDoux has some exceptional research in this area).

@Cloud expressed something I think about almost daily right now, as I try to develop family traditions that my children will hopefully look back on with warmth and love throughout their lives: How WEIRD is it that a 2.5 year old (and many 3-5 year olds also) won't remember our vacations, holiday celebrations, or any other cool events, events that they can NOW remember? I think it IS strange. But also, we have to remember (hahahahaha… ugh) that just because most children won't retain coherent memories of these special events into adulthood, they still MATTER. These experiences still make up the foundation of who our children are, how they are developing, how secure, happy, anxious, angry, and so on they WILL become. We may not be able to retrieve a perfectly intact memory of our childhood vacations (I certainly can't), but those experiences nevertheless were the basis from which we learned how to share with other kids, swim safely, dance like lunatics, trust adults, stay clear of poison ivy, read with a watch light under the covers, try different types of foods, and so on. 

And now this post is getting away from me and I haven't even BEGUN to talk about all the ways in which our memories are biased, flawed, skewed, motivated by our current situation, mood, developmental stage and so on. There are boatloads of studies that show how bad we are at ACCURATELY encoding certain types of information. And who among us has not had the fight with a parent, sibling or partner who remembered a CRUCIAL event totally differently than we did? Memory is NOT an objective, factual trace laid onto our neural circuitry… that's what makes it so fascinating for so many psychologists to study and for so many therapists to delve more deeply into with their clients.

Are those experiences that we CAN'T remember from our childhood any less influential on the person we've become than the things we DO remember? What memories would you be/ are you sad that your child will not retain? (My mother, for example, is horrified that I don't remember the details of our trip to Italy when we were 12 years old. TWELVE?!?! How could I forget that gorgeous cathedral, that ice cream cone, that gilded br
idge?! She thinks I'm brain damaged. But the thing is, I DO remember the guy on the Spanish Steps who winked at me on his moped… 28 years later, and I remember him and that wink PERFECTLY.)

– Isabela

Did you know? Random facts about children, none of which I feel like writing a whole post about

Ever have one of those weeks when you can't write one interesting thing? When every single word you write you want to erase before you even reach the end of the word? Have patience with me folks… I'm not sure what the problem is, but my blogging chutzpah is a little lagging. In the meantime, here are some interesting facts, all of which I COULD write about at length, if I could, you know, WRITE.


  • Autobiographical memory (memories about ourselves) doesn't begin until around the age of 3. (At least for the vast majority of people. I've heard of some rare cases of memory retrieval at INSANELY young ages).
  • Autobiographical memory is one of the more fascinating characteristics that distinguish us from other animals
  • Children as young as infants can distinguish attractive and non-attractive faces. And they "prefer" the former.
  • Self-esteem and attractiveness are not related in childhood.
  • Over-weight girls are teased more than under-weight girls. For boys, the pattern is the opposite.
  • In the spirit of raising "free-range" kids, there are good arguments for allowing our children to engage in "dangerous things" for their healthy intellectual and emotional development.
  • You may know that early puberty can cause more conflict in parent-child relationships. BUT!  Did you know that excess distance and high-level conflict between parents and their daughters can CAUSE the onset of puberty in girls?
  • Play is vital… at all ages. It makes us smarter, happier, more successful and more creative. Allowing our children to play, as freely as possible, is one of the best things we can do for our children (but also for US!).

The ideas and links above have been thought-provoking for me (not that I
can write in any depth about ANY of them right now). Any of them peek your interest?

– Isabela

What do YOU think? Let’s lighten up…

 I've been reading a lot of blogs way too late into the night in the past week and I don't know about you, but I'm so keenly aware of the INCREDIBLY tough times many people are having right now. It may be the holidays and all the boatload of baggage that usually comes with over-anticipated get-togethers with family. Or it may be the new year on the horizon and the tendency that we have to take stock at these times of transition. Or the moon is full, the days are too dark, the economy sucks, life can be just plain hard sometimes and/or all of the above. Whatever the reasons, I'm craving a little lightness, a little giggle, or just something to make me think, hmmmmmmm… interesting (instead of OMG. HOW AWFUL.). 

In psychology in general, and developmental psychology in particular, we often tend to focus or try to understand things that DON'T work with our kids, or have gone somewhat awry or are problematic. (It's certainly where a lot of the funding for our research goes — to projects that attempt to "solve" children's problems or enhance their performance/learning, etc.). But there are so many amazing things about our children that are worth wondering about, standing in awe of, or just plain laughing about. So tell me, dear readers:

What AMAZES you about your child? What makes you shake your head with wonder? 

I'll go first:

  • I am completely perplexed by the fact that one of my boys seems to be a carbon copy of his father and the other is almost exactly like me. Not just physically (although that's downright eerie too), but also personality-wise (I will save you the list of neuroses that each of our poor boys has inherited from their respective parent). Each boy seems to have taken 95% of one parent's genes. But that's NOT the way that genetic transmission works…
  • I don't understand how or why my children wake up in the morning with bright smiles on their faces 95% of the time (can you tell I'm not a morning person?).
  • Since 6 months old, one of my boys has a hysterical appreciation of slapstick comedy. I don't get it. His father TOTALLY does.
  • My other boy has an almost bang-on precise intuition about what others are feeling (he asks CONSTANTLY: Why is he sad? What made him mad? Is she lonely?). His father TOTALLY does not get this.

Your turn…

Reader’s Question: Sleep training during the (8 – 11 month) developmental transition

Let's start this week off with a reader's question about something we haven't talked about for a while… sleep!  Yes, we can still address this thorny, ever-morphing issue even though the blog is no longer fully focused on the topic. The question comes from a mother of a 9-month old, but I think we can consider it more broadly to cover any developmental transition period:

My son was sleeping in his crib with very few interruptions until
he came down with a bad cold a few weeks back.  I'd trained him using
the sleep doula method when he was seven months old.  This involved
sleeping on a matress on his bedroom floor for a week and shhh-patting
him whenever he awoke during the night.  Anyhow, once he got sick I
began to take him out of his crib in the night and take him into my
husband's and my bed to sleep.  Now he won't sleep in his crib
anymore.  I'd like to try the sleep doula training method again but
I've now entered the 9-11 month blackout period.  I'd still be in the
room so he'd know I hadn't abandoned him, but I'm worried that it might
be damaging to him to see me right there, standing in his room but not
responding to his requests to be picked up.

Do you think it would be okay to try this method at this time or should I wait?

So, first off, although the reader is asking about her 9-month old in particular, I think the question can be considered more broadly to cover ANY of the developmental transitions we've talked about on this site. I could have picked from another 4 emails that asked almost the same question (although the particular sleep training methods differed), but were about their 18-month old or 2.5 year old child. So I wanted to mention and review some GENERAL points about transition periods and their impact on sleep training and then get into the specifics of this question.

There are a few, very predictable, developmental transition periods that I've mentioned can be quite problematic for sleep training children. Each of these periods have their own specific character, but what they have in common is that they are developmental transitions during which there are massive reorganizations/changes occurring in multiple domains (cognitive, emotional, social and oftentimes physical). Our approach has been to discourage parents from sleep training during these periods because, no matter what sleep training technique you use, they are less likely to work if the child is adjusting to these huge changes. So, no matter if the child is acquiring object permanence and getting his first real taste of separation anxiety at 8 – 11 months, or is experiencing a burst of language development and understanding social roles at 18 – 21 months, or feeling her first stabs of jealousy at 2.5 years old, or really groc-ing how different people's perceptions can be and feeling the resultant first stings of shame at around 3.5 years old… each of these new stages brings with it a whole lot of upheaval, much of which is related to the social connectedness we have with the ones we love most. Sleep training can be a hard enough battle to win, without stacking the deck against you with all of these new psychological acquisitions added to the mix. So, if there's a way to avoid sleep training during these stages, I've always recommended doing so.

HOWEVER, as we all know, we can have the best-laid plans and then things just don't go our way. Sometimes, like this reader's question typifies, sh*& happens and we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of one of these transitions with little recourse but to forge ahead and try to teach or re-teach our children better sleeping habits. In these cases, my best advice would be: Go for it, try whatever technique you feel will work best for your family, and keep an open mind. The worst that can happen is the child will NOT learn better sleep habits. That sucks, but at LEAST you can feel rest assured that it is NOT your fault. It's not that you didn't learn the most magical, bestest, coolest technique out there to help your kid sleep; it's not that you let her CIO or DIDN'T let her CIO or nursed too much or not enough or that you used the wrong blinds, the wrong music, the wrong pacifier. It's just a sucky developmental period to make these kinds of lessons stick. So I would caution this reader and anyone else trying to forge ahead and sleep train during a sensitive period: it will be hard, possibly harder than if you would have done it earlier or later. And it may not work. BUT! BUT!  Are you all paying attention here? BUT! You are NOT screwing up your child for life if you give it a try. If you feel you must sleep train during a sensitive period, for your sanity, your child's health, whatever, do it and feel no guilt. If it works (after perhaps more work and more time at it) yippee for everyone. If it doesn't work, you have a likely causal explanation and your next plan of action is to wait until this phase runs its course and you can implement the sleep-training method of your choice at that time.

Getting back to the reader's specific concerns about the 9 – 11 month stage, I don't think you will "damage" your child with this sleep training method. Is it ok to try, sure, at least for a couple of days. But because this new stage is all about the child acquiring a more sophisticated understanding of your presence in the world, the same technique that worked at 7 months (before your child really GOT your "permanence" in the world) may simply not work at this stage. The sight of you near, but unattainable, may be too frustrating at this sensitive stage. Sleep training with this "doula" method may just flood your child with too much anxiety, making it difficult to learn any new sleeping skills. But again, I firmly believe you won't damage your child for life if you attempt this method for a few days, even if a few tears are indeed shed (perhaps on both your parts). 

Anyone out there have some supportive words for the original poster of the question? Anyone have great success stories to share from this age? Or how about some words of commiseration… this is a tough age to muddle through (for the whole family).

Attachment, attached, attachment parenting: We’re not talking about the same thing

Oh it's so great to be able to post again! Sorry for that little lull — and about not being so responsive to emails and comments as of late. It has been/is a CRAZY time at work and home right now.

I thought I'd extend the conversations that have been started in the comments sections and try to clarify a few ideas on attachment and security in children. I'm thinking of this post as a reflection on your comments; I'll skip actually naming people who left the comments and sent us emails because I'm too disorganized right now, but I hope I can cover some of the concerns that have been raised.

So, the first issue concerns terminology. When developmental psychologists talk about "attachment theory" they are NOT talking about "attachment parenting." To be brief and somewhat blunt, the former is based on decades of theorizing, anthropological research, and tons of empirical studies in psychology. The latter is an approach to parenting that is valid and popular (I have many friends who are AP parents;-)), but not based on scientific, peer reviewed research. Although attachment parenting (AP) advocates often refer to the attachment theory literature, there is no direct link and, to be perfectly honest, the developmental attachment theory folks are freaked out by how some of their principles have been appropriated by the AP supporters. To be clear, I am not at all being disparaging about AP parenting, but I did want to clarify the distinction.

Related, when we talk about "securely attached" children, we're not talking about a child that is constantly ATTACHED (i.e., on the hip, in a sling, co-sleeping, being breastfed on demand). You certainly can be a well-adjusted, secure child that comes from this sort of upbringing, but it is in NO WAY a necessary condition. One of the most ubiquitous findings in the attachment literature is that there are "many roads that lead to Rome": In other words, there are a whole lot of parenting styles, family configurations, work at home/in home situations, etc. that can all lead to well-adjusted, secure children.

I read several comments and emails from parents that can be summarized like this: "My child doesn't seem attached ENOUGH to me. He doesn't get distressed when I leave at all!" Oddly enough, this probably means your child is perfectly, securely "attached" in that he has internalized a safe, secure "home base" and he does not need that home base to be physically connected to him all the time to feel that sense of security. The other set of commenters were worried that their children were "insecure" in that they were tough with transitions, needed to be held by mom all the time, etc. But see… this is the confusing part to get, these children ALSO are probably securely attached, they're just temperamentally more sensitive and you moms who are responding to it are doing your best to shore up your child with everything you've got (or can give, given circumstances). I think underlying all these concerns is the worry that we, the moms, have done something "wrong" (e.g., worked out of the home, left them too early at daycare, payed more attention to another sibling, etc). If there's ONE THING I want to get out of the way in this post is that temperament TRUMPS attachment styles. And developmental transitions can ALSO TRUMP attachment styles (in other words, sometimes your kid will have periods of heightened sensitivity to separations, sometimes she'll be fine). I'd be willing to bet that every single one of the kids of the moms that have commented would be classified by developmentalists as "securely attached" (statistics are on my side here). But all these kids that we're worried about MAY have more sensitive temperament styles, and as parents, all we can do is try to adjust to that as best we can to meet their needs.

One of the coolest things about having fraternal twins is that I sometimes feel like I have my very own little control group in a teeny tiny study. I would be beating myself up a whole lot more about my choices (to work out of the home, to stop nursing before a year, to travel for days away from the kids, and the list goes on) if I didn't see how much of separation sensitivity comes form the child himself, and there's almost nothing I can do about it. Case in point: This morning, I had to leave for work SUPER early, before breakfast. Boy 1's response: Bye-bye mama! What's for breakfast, Papa? Boy 2's response: WAILING, clinging to me, waving pitifully out the window at me (heart's breaking in 1000 pieces AGAIN as I'm writing and reliving it). If I had only Boy 2, I would attribute his distress to my working too much (which still may be true, I'm not totally off the hook here). But having my other one makes me realize that I could be a full-time stay-at-home mom and boy 2 would likely still have more difficulties with separations.

A couple of last points to highlight that were brought up in Tracy's post a bit and her subsequent comments: (1) Attachment styles are not great predictors of future outcomes. They're weak to moderate predictors, with a whole lot of the messy world, different relationships, temperament styles and life circumstances that interfere to wreck our perfect correlations. (2) Attachment styles often CHANGE throughout the lifespan, so nothing's a done deal. (3) The key issue for me is to try to do our best to foster in our children a sense of the world that is predictable (relatively), safe, warm and generally supportive. ESPECIALLY when they are young children. This isn't always easy, but that's all that secure attachment really means in the end. A securely attached adult is simply one that has grown up to feel secure, relatively confident and deserving of love and affection in their relationships.

So… has this clarified anything for people or just convinced you that psychologists are altogether too loose with their terms? Is this making you feel more or less secure as a parent?

– Isabela