Too Young to Remember

Better To Have It Done When He’s Too Young to Remember?


“Many men who were circumcised as neonates consider it a nonissue because they cannot remember anything about it. In my psychotherapeutic work with men, however, it is clear that the memory is there. Since the event occurred at a very early preverbal level, it is most often experienced as a body or somatic memory rather than as a more familiar verbal memory. Various disturbing mental images and intense feelings often accompany the reemergence of this body memory, including the feel of sharp metallic instruments cutting into one’s flesh (anesthesia is normally not used in circumcision), the sense of being overpowered by big people, being alone and helpless, feelings of terror, and a sense of paralysis and immobilization.

Circumcision of the newborn male child consists of removal of the penile foreskin, a normal, functional part of the child’s body. The United States is now the only industrialized country in the world that continues to circumcise the majority of its newborn male children for non-religious reasons. In my client population of adult men, serious and sometimes disabling lifelong consequences appear to have resulted from this procedure, and long-term psychotherapy focusing on early trauma resolution appears to be effective in dealing with these consequences. Early prevention by eliminating the practice of routine circumcision is seen as desirable.”

John W. Rhinehart, M.D. is a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist and director of Deep Brook Center, Newtown , CT


Infantile “Amnesia” is Dead

In academic circles, a long-standing prejudice against the reliability of all early memory is collapsing. The least-likely period for memory to function, the intrauterine period, increasingly illuminated by ultrasound, has made it possible for visionary experimental psychologists to show that memory and learning systems are intact. Babies still in the womb are signaling that they have become familiar with rhymes repeated to them daily over a four-week period. Likewise, immediately after birth, babies exposed to parents’ voices, musical passages, soap opera themes, news program sounds, sounds of their native language, as well as tastes and smells introduced in utero are all treated as familiar, that is, learned and remembered from weeks and months before birth.

Memory experts have continued to overlook the prima facie evidence provided by two- and three-year old children spontaneously recalling specific aspects of their birth when they are first able to use language (Linda Mathison, 1981). This evidence, published in magazines for parents and childbirth educators, was not taken seriously in scientific circles. Ironically, for almost three decades, we have had memory experts denying birth memory at the same time that new waves of three-year-olds were proving them wrong!

Psychologists and pediatricians alike have been enthralled by the theory of infantile amnesia since it was first stated by Sigmund Freud in 1916. His popular observation that people rarely remember anything that happened to them before their second or third birthday turned a casual observation into a dogma of developmental psychology. It was further justified by theories of noted Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, about the limitations of newborn intelligence and its development in discreet stages. Tearing down the wall of illusion regarding infant memory has taken a cadre of dedicated researchers almost two generations and several dozen experiments. The death of Freud’s theory of “infantile amnesia” was accurately described by Carolyn Rovee-Collier (1996) when she called it a “misconception…an effort to explain a phenomenon that does not exist.”

A key prejudice stemming from anatomy made it difficult to accept any sophisticated early use of the mind because the brain was unfinished and would not be able to support memory and learning. A further prejudice in psychology was that true episodic memory could not be tested with prenates or preverbal infants. These notions made it easy to avoid doing research on prenates and newborns, and when contrary findings were first reported, they were easily dismissed.

In spite of this, experimental psychologists finally managed to prove that children at age three, age two, age one, and at birth were all able to demonstrate different forms of recall.Preverbal infants showed they could recall procedures involving a series of steps, after long delays, or recall details of hidden objects, locations, and size from much earlier experiences. In the end, experts began to see that early learning required the same factors and conditions which improve recall in older children and adults, such as the nature and importance of the events, the number of times they experience them, and the availability of cues or reminders. The new perspective was that babies are constantly remembering and learning what they need to know at the time; these memories are not lost, they are continually updated as learning progresses.

The old belief that infants were mentally incompetent isolated them and delayed discovery of even their most elementary senses, emotions, and skills. More importantly, dogma and prejudice obscured the evidence for higher perception, telepathic communication, and subtle forms of knowing and awareness which could only be confirmed much later as the babies became children and adults. The false idea of “infantile amnesia” that prevailed for eighty years (1916-1996) misled professionals in both medicine and psychology and delayed parents from realizing the true capacities of their babies in the womb, at birth, and during infancy.

by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.

For Further Study

Note: The chief architects in psychology of the demise of “infantile amnesia” have been Patricia Bauer, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, and Andrew Meltzoff. Some of their work and the work of other contributors are listed here to allow for historical study in greater detail.

Bauer, P. & Mandler, J. M. (1989), One thing follows another: Effects of temporal structure on 1- to 2-year-olds’ recall of events. Developmental Psychology, 25(2), 197-206.

Bauer, P. J. & Mandler, J. (1992), Putting the horse before the cart: The use of temporal order in recall of events by one-year-old children. Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 441-452.

Bauer, P. J. & Wewerka, S. S. (1995), One- to two-year-olds’ recall of events: The more expressed, the more impressed. J. of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 475-496.

Bauer, P. J. (1996), What do infants recall of their lives? Memory for specific events by one- to two-year-olds, American Psychologist, 51(1), 29-41.

Drummey, A. B. & Newcombe, N. (1995), Remembering versus knowing the past: Children’s explicit and implicit memories for pictures. Journal Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 549-565

Hayne, H. & Findlay, N. (1995), Contextual control of memory retrieval in infancy: Evidence for associative priming. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 195-207.

Hayne, H. & Rovee-Collier (1995), The organization of reactivated memory in infancy. Child Development, 66(3), 893-906.

Mandler, J. M. & McDonough, L. (1995), Long-term recall of event sequences in infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 457-474

Mathison, L. (1981), Does your child remember? Mothering Magazine, Fall

Meltzoff, A. N. (1988), Imitation of televised models by infants. Child Development, 59, 1221-1229.

Meltzoff, A. N. (1995), What infant memory tells us about infantile amnesia: Long-term recall and deferred imitation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59(3), 497-515.

Meltzoff, A. N. & Gopnik, A. (1997), Words, Thoughts and Theories, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rovee-Collier, C. & Fagan, J. (1981), The retrieval of memory in early infancy. In L. Lipsitt, (Ed.), Advances in infancy research, volume 1. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Rovee-Collier, C. & Lipsitt, L. (1982), Learning, adaptation, and memory in the newborn. In P. Stratton (Ed.) Psychobiology of the human newborn (pp. 147-190). New York: Wiley.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1987), Learning and memory in infancy. In J. D. Osofsky (Ed.), Handbook of infant development (2nd ed.) (pp. 98-148). New York: Wiley.

Rovee-Collier, C. & Hayne, H. (1987), Reactivation of infant memory: Implications for cognitive development. In H. Reese (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 20, 185-238.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1989), The joy of kicking: Memories, motives, and mobiles. In Solomon and others (Eds.), Memory: Interdisciplinary approaches, 151-180. New York: Springer.

Rovee-Collier, C. (1996), Shifting the focus from what to why, Infant Behavior and Development, 19(4), 385-400.


Babies Remember Pain

Denial of Pain

For thousands of years, ignorance has separated us from a factual understanding of babies, an information gap that has been filled only in the last two decades. Long-standing prejudices toward babies are still visible in our attitude toward their age or size. They will become real persons when they are older or can speak our language. Overlooking the evidence to the contrary, we persist in believing that their senses are not developed and their brain unable to record memory or organize experience into meaning. Thus, newborn pain is not like our pain (Maurer & Maurer, 1988, pp 33-36, 218) -a claim used in the not-too-distant past to discount the pain of minorities and slaves. In modern India the cruel practice of branding infant tummies with hot irons continues in rural areas under the influence of witchdoctors. The pain is thought to be good for them (Chandra, 1988), an idea sometimes advanced in the United States in regard to birth trauma (Lagercrantz & Slotkin, 1986). Trauma is “good” because it activates endorphins and prepares the baby for real life. How can endorphins justify trauma? Experiments with rats show that when you shock their feet, their production of endorphins will shoot up as much as 600%, but is this any reason to shock them in the foot? Pain is not good for rats or babies.

The reality of pain memory (and birth memory) is confirmed by a mother whose premature baby was shunted for hydrocephalus without painkillers and while paralyzed with curare. Large incisions were cut in his scalp, neck, and abdomen and a hole drilled in his skull. She writes that ten years after the operation her son will still not allow anyone to touch his head, neck, and abdomen in the areas touched during surgery. The mere sight of the hospital provokes in this child violent trembling, profuse sweating, screaming, struggling, and vomiting.

Further misunderstanding was created by the belief that “lower” and earlier brain structures were incapable of complex activity and could not work properly until the “higher” and later brain structures were fully developed. These beliefs also turn out, in retrospect, to be false (Prechtl, 1981).

PRE- AND PERI-NATAL PSYCHOLOGY, Volume 3, Number 4: Pages 297-310,
Summer 1989.
by David B. Chamberlain Ph. D.