Pioneering research by the University of Hertfordshire could change what we know about memory development in children

30 May 2022

Spontaneously remembering a past event, or having a song pop into your head whilst busy with an unrelated task, is a common experience for adults – but until now, little was known about whether and how the phenomenon occurs in children.

Now scientists at the University of Hertfordshire, working in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University, have not only confirmed that children often experience the same phenomenon, but that spontaneous memories could develop much earlier in life than the ability to deliberately recall something.

This research, published in Child Development, provides new insights in memory development and could potentially change the way we educate children in the future.

Spontaneous memories, also known as ‘involuntary memories’, have been studied in adults for more than two decades. Previous research in children, however, has been limited and relied on parent reports or laboratory observations.

To get a better understanding of whether and how children experience spontaneous memories, and to explore whether this phenomenon changes with age, scientists took the unique approach of directly interviewing over 140 children (aged five, seven and nine) and young adults.

They found that most children reported having spontaneous memories and were even able to provide examples from their own experience – for example, when triggered by cues in the environment (“when I see ice, it reminds me when I went ice skating”) or when memories came to mind without an apparent trigger (“days out with my family pop into my head at school”).

Overall, over 70% of five-year-olds had experienced spontaneous memories, compared to 97% of young adults. All age groups said that spontaneous memories happened to them quite often, and the way children described these memories was remarkably similar across the age groups.

Lia Kvavilashvili, a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and lead researcher, said: “We know very little about children’s experiences of spontaneous memories. Most research has focused on deliberate memory recall, where the child must make a conscious effort to remember something rather than having it pop in their mind.

“We already know that a child’s ability to deliberately recall a memory improves substantially as they get older, but our research suggests that spontaneous memory may appear much earlier and in children as young as five. It also suggests that spontaneous memory may even be the preferred way in which our memory system likes to operate.”

Ruth Ford, an Associate Professor in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and a co-author, added: “There is even a possibility that spontaneous memories could inform how children develop their ability to deliberately recall something. For example, a child might informally learn that by having a cue or a reminder in the environment, they can better remember something and be able to recall it in future.”

Metamemory for involuntary autobiographical memories and semantic mind-pops in 5-, 7- and 9-year-old children and young adults is available in Open Access on Child Development.


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