Sunday, July 19, 2009

Memory and Peaches

It was a bright, hot morning at the farmers’ market. The booths were crowded with people. Corn, picked fresh that day, sold out before we could push our way to the table. Guitar music floated through the air. Babies lay supine and sprawled in their strollers, hair plastered to their foreheads with sweat. We planted ourselves in the plastic chairs in front of the musicians. Sophia climbed Kevin, begging for ice chips from his lemonade while I enviously watched others take plump peaches out of their eco-friendly mesh bags and eat them lustily: dirt, pesticides and all.

I asked Kevin for some money and purchased a couple peaches…one for me and one for Miss Sophia. They were take-a-bite-and-the-juice-runs-down-your-arms peaches; fleshy and ripe. I sunk my teeth into one and Sophia looked on longingly. “Peach! Sophie! Bite peach!” she cried, reaching for my succulent fruit.

Sophia was looking pretty darn cute that morning, sporting a pink seersucker dress (my choice), layered with a tutu (her choice). The last thing I was going to let her do was take a bite of that peach and sully her beautiful clothes. So, I bit off a piece for her and tried to pop it in her mouth.

“NO! Mama! Sophie’s peach!” Translation: I want the whole damn thing. Give it to me now.

“Sophia,” I reasoned. “If I give you the whole thing, you’re going to get very dirty. Wait until we get home.” She threw herself down on the ground and sobbed for about 10 seconds. All in all, I think she took it quite well.

We piled into the car. Made a pit stop for bagels and wine. Unpacked the car. I was setting the produce down on the counter when Sophia reminded me, “Mama, peach.”

Now, I know that she has object permanence, but this really took me by surprise. As parents, we bank on the fact that our kids will soon forget unfulfilled promises, changes in plans, and minor insults. But, this child has tenacity. She had to hold that peach in her consciousness for at least ½ an hour.

And, oddly, she hadn’t mentioned it since we left the market. There was no obvious “rehearsal” of the promise of the peach.

Now, home, I was able to strip her down to the tutu, cover her in a bib, and restrain her in the high chair. I let her maul the peach to her heart’s content. She handed it to me, ten minutes latter, bitten and battered, with deep wounds that went all the way to the pit.

I quickly put the fruit out of its misery.

But the whole thing got me wondering: what can children remember? And what does the development of memory look like? I did a little Internet research, and here are a few things I learned:

  • “The fundamentals of the human processing system are in place at birth or earlier.” I don’t know how researchers figured this one out but in the 40th week, a fetus can remember a stimulus ten minutes later with a lasting memory for up to 24 hours (we’re born with “memory equipment”)
  • A baby’s long term memory can be for a long as 24-hours at six weeks old and up to four months at 16 months old (the good news is that although she remembers the time you dropped her on her head when she was 13 months old, in another month, she won’t)
  • “If provided with a nonverbal mode of reporting, infants can show robust recognition and recall of stimuli and events” (pointing, re-enactments, etc.)
  • “Young children show superior recollection of naturally occurring events compared to poorer recognition of standard laboratory lists of words and pictures” (personal relevance and context matters)
  • “Developments in neural structures and processes in the infant and toddler years play a key role in facilitating memory performance” (as kids develop, so does their capacity to remember)
  • “As rapid growth of critical brain structures levels off, subsequent improvements in performance are attributable largely to advances in strategies, knowledge, and metamemory” (you CAN improve your bad memory)
  • “Children’s memory reports can be remarkably accurate but are also vulnerable to the effects of suggestions of others” (why it’s so hard to interview children about abuse)
  • “Memory is not context free, but operates in part as a function of the world in which we live” (did I mention that context matters?).

Source: Courage, M.L. & Cowan, N. (2008) The Development of Memory in Infancy and Childhood

So, yes, at this age Sophia is perfectly capable of remembering that I promised her that peach. And the mere act of setting the bag of produce down on the counter might have been enough of a contextual prompt that there were peaches to be eaten. It was also lunch time, so simply being hungry might have activated the memory of the peach.

The takeaway? I need to be careful what I promise, because, chances are, Sophia will hold me to it.

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