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(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872, emphasis in original)In his brief dialogue between the King and the Queen-two of the chess-piece sovereigns of Looking-glass House-Lewis Carroll captured the complementary sides of the memory coin.The King, having experienced a "horrifying" event (being set upon a table by Alice, a relative giant whom the King could neither see nor hear) expresses absolute faith in remembering.
Indeed, it is the apparently "off the charts" rate of forgetting that makes the phenomenon so mysterious.
But what, precisely, is the "expected" rate of forgetting?
The phenomenon was subsequently amended with the observation that from the ages of 3 to 7 years, adults have fewer memories than would be expected, based on forgetting alone (e.g., Pillemer & White, 1989; Wetzler & Sweeney, 1986).
The observation is one of the most replicable in the literature: Whether tested in 1893 or 1999 (West & Bauer, 1999), among adults in Western cultures, the average age of earliest memory is age 3 to 3½ years.
In a research area in which theories about function in childhood were advanced in the absence of data from children, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that the "expected" rate of forgetting is derived solely from work with adults.
For example, in their oft-cited demonstration of the phenomenon of childhood amnesia, Wetzler and Sweeney (1986) applied to adult data (from Rubin, 1982) a forgetting function based on memories from age 8 until adulthood.
The children provided verbal descriptions of unique events experienced 6 or more months in the past.
Several other reports followed, each indicating that within the period eventually obscured by childhood amnesia, children had remarkably rich autobiographies (for reviews, see Bauer, in press-b; Nelson & Fivush, 2004).
Most other theories fall into one of two categories: adults lack memories from early in life because no memories were formed or memories were formed, but later became inaccessible as a result of cognitive changes, for example (e.g., the onset of language).
Strikingly, until the middle of the 1980s, explanations as to the source of childhood amnesia were advanced without reference to data from a seemingly critical study population-children!