Studies indicate that by six months, infants have developed memory skills to recall some experiences. In fact, as early as six weeks of age, some infants stare more intensely at unfamiliar objects, a behavior researchers interpret as evidence that infants can distinguish the unfamiliar from the familiar.
Researchers studying older infants between 12 and 24 months have found that they are beginning to develop the memory necessary to recall specific events. This recall ability is stronger when the event has been experienced more than once. Hints, cues, or reminders also improve the young child's ability to retrieve a memory.
Researchers believe that working memory involves complex interactions of different areas of the brain—one for visual memories and another for verbal memories. In the early 1970s, researchers at UCLA gathered evidence that the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain just beneath the forehead, was stimulated when monkeys looked for a hidden item. In the late 1980s, researchers at Yale University expanded upon this experiment to confirm the prefrontal cell activity during experiments with monkeys.
In 1993, activity in the prefrontal regions of the brain refined the identification of object identity memories and spatial relationship memories. This led to the development of a model for working memory that features parallel areas processing different types of sensory memory information. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, using positron emission tomography (PET) to map neuronal activity, found that working memory for facial features and for locations are centered in different areas of the prefrontal
cortex. University of Michigan research teams corroborated this evidence that working memory for spatial relations is centered in a different location from working memory for verbal information.
As of the late 1990s, the evidence seems to indicate that the prefrontal cortex is the site of working memory. To perform this function, however, it must interact with the areas of the brain that receive sensory input. As available imaging and other research techniques become more refined, researchers will also refine their understanding of how the memory works. Memories that can be retrieved when needed (one's phone number, for example) appear to be coordinated through the hippocampus deep in the core of the brain, while other types of memories are handled by other areas.
FALSE AND RECOVERED MEMORIES
As of the late 1990s, research into recovered memories was characterized by tremendous controversy. A leading researcher in this subject, Elizabeth Loftus, conducted studies on over 20,000 subjects, and pointed to evidence she felt was convincing that memory is both fragile and unreliable. Her work supported the notion that eyewitness accounts of events are often inaccurate, and that false memories can be created through suggestion in approximately 25% of the population. Loftus's work calls into question the validity of memories that are recovered under coaching or questioning; such memories have provided the basis for countless lawsuits brought against adults who are accused of molesting children. Her research has shown that emotional state—either low points, such as boredom or sleepiness or high points, such as stress or trauma—decrease the reliability of memory. She has also shown that experiencing violent and traumatic events decrease the accuracy of memory. Loftus theorizes that memory is suggestible and deteriorates over time. In her classic study, known as "Lost in the Shopping Mall," she demonstrated that subjects—children and teenagers—could be induced to remember being lost in a mall at an early age, even though it never actually happened, by simply questioning them about it as if it had happened.
One of the problems with the recovery of repressed memories is the very process of recovery. Many individuals recover memories while in therapy, under hypnosis, or in some other situation where the possibility of suggestion is powerful. In the late 1990s, in responses to the swelling controversy over recovered memories, the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association all issued guidelines to help practitioners deal with reports of recovered memories, especially of sexual abuse during childhood. In general, most physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists suggest that recovered memories be corroborated through external investigation, and that alternative explanations for the existence of the memories be considered before any legal action be taken based on them.
False memory syndrome is dividing the field of professional psychotherapy. Some psychotherapists believe that to question the interpretation of and belief in recovered memories is to undermine the possibility of the existence of repression; others see the challenge to recovered memories as a sign of society's refusal to confront a serious problem with child abuse and abuse of women. Others contend that there are no psychoanalytic theories to support forgetting of traumatic events, or their detailed recall after the passage of time.