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Mark Hutchinson/University Relations

Andrea Greenhoot, associate professor of psychology, conducts a memory exercise with a child. Her research focuses on memory development in children.

CAMPUS CLOSEUPAndrea Greenhoot - Associate professor of psychology

Years at current job: 7.5 years

Job duties: I direct a research program studying the development of memory between early childhood and late adolescence. I also supervise and train several psychology doctoral students, organize two colloquia series for the department, and teach graduate and undergraduate courses in developmental psychology, cognitive development and memory and eyewitness testimony.

Your research focuses on cognitive development and memory development, especially in children. What have you learned about children and their cognitive/memory development? One thing that is quite clear from my research is that memories are not stored in verbatim or photographic form, and they are not held in a vacuum. Rather, memories are dynamic and can be influenced and transformed by all sorts of factors, such as a child's cognitive level, knowledge and emotional state, and the social contexts in which memories are used. So, if we want to understand the development of children's memory abilities, we need to look at the way memory interacts with other aspects of cognitive, social and emotional functioning, We cannot look at memory in isolation from a child's broader experiences.

Can children or adults really "repress" early memories of traumatic events like abuse? I have had a unique opportunity to address this question as part of a longitudinal study of women and children exposed to domestic violence and abuse. We have looked at adolescents' memories for spousal violence and child abuse that was documented six years earlier when they were children, and discovered that more than 20 percent of the teens forgot or failed to report any family aggression at all, even though they were willing to disclose all sorts of other intimate details about their lives. But for the most part, this apparent forgetting was explained by simple and traditional variables that we know affect memory via standard processes, such as age, re-exposure to abuse, the teens' general autobiographical memory abilities, and their attitudes about the abuser. So it may not be unusual for people to forget highly aversive experiences, but such forgetting does not necessarily imply special mechanisms like the Freudian notion of repression.

Have you found any evidence that the memory of children may not be reliable enough to be useful as testimony? Judgments about the reliability of children's testimony have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Children's memories are more impoverished and susceptible to misleading and suggestive forces than those of adults. We know that under ideal conditions, even reports of very young children can be quite accurate.

It is unlikely, however, that a child could provide a verbal report about an event he or she had experienced before the onset of language. Optimal conditions include a short delay between an event and recall, a limited number of interviews, avoidance of specific and leading questions, and a low probability of exposure to misinformation.

You also study how knowledge, attitudes and beliefs affect recollection. Do certain beliefs affect what children remember or how certain things are remembered? Definitely. Knowledge, attitudes and beliefs influence the way both children and adults understand and remember events or stimuli. In fact, person-to-person differences in knowledge, attitudes and beliefs can help explain why different people often have enormously divergent recollections of the same event. In one series of studies, my research team and I have shown that children's knowledge or beliefs about another person- such as whether he or she is a bully or a nice child- dramatically shape how they interpret and recollect that person's actions. And if we later modify children's views of that person, they will actually reconstruct or reframe their recollections of earlier events to be consistent with their new views. Given that our knowledge base changes continually in response to new information, we probably reinterpret or reconstruct existing memories all the time. This has some interesting implications for understanding what happens to memories over extensive delays. For instance, changes in children's understanding of the appropriateness of different kinds of physical contact could influence their memories for early experiences with physical or sexual abuse.

How do children's recollective processes compare to those of adults? Children usually store less information in memory than adults and their memories are more fragile or susceptible to external influences like misleading information or suggestive questions. Children also rely more on cues and other people to guide them through the recollection process. This means that adults can play a major role in shaping the way children remember and process their past experiences, which is especially important to keep in mind when children experience negative or stressful events. Nevertheless, parents of young children often tell me that they are astonished by some of the events their children remember - events they had forgotten about until reminded by their children. This brings me back to the role of knowledge, attitudes and beliefs: what is interesting or meaningful to a 3-year-old is sometimes quite different from what is interesting, and therefore memorable, to the child's parent.

Have you found that children exposed to abuse remember things differently than those who were not? Some of our findings do suggest that abuse and other chronic stressors have an impact on general memory functioning. Adolescents exposed to severe abuse have more difficulty recollecting specific events from their childhoods than teens with less severe or no abuse exposure. They are also less likely to include emotions in their recollections, even though their childhood experiences were probably more emotionally arousing than those of teens without abuse histories. My students and I are carrying out several studies to help us understand the reasons for these memory disturbances. Our results thus far suggest that these problems are specific to personal memories and do not reflect general cognitive impairments. Our working hypothesis is that individuals with abuse histories avoid thinking or talking about potentially negative details from the past in order to regulate their emotions. We do not think, however, that this is an especially adaptive strategy, as emotional suppression has been linked to poorer physical and mental health.

There is often a general perception that, as people age, they do not remember things as well as they once did. Does this happen as people age from childhood to adolescence? It depends on your level of analysis. Memory skills generally improve across childhood and adolescence, whereas memory for a particular event experienced in childhood will fade and become harder to access as a child approaches adolescence because of the increased temporal distance from the event. Yet recollections of childhood events may actually become more elaborate and coherent with age, because adolescents are better able than children to reconstruct details on the basis of knowledge and organize those details into a narrative. Of course, elaborateness and coherence are not the same as accuracy.

What are some aspects of your job others might not realize you're involved with? Conducting research with children involves jumping through many hoops. To access child participants I typically obtain consent from the overall school system, administrators of individual schools, individual teachers within schools, parents of potential participants, and finally, the children themselves. There are no guarantees at any of these levels of consent. I have had to develop skills, like marketing techniques and child management methods that might seem unnecessary for a career in academia.

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February 5, 2007 : Vol. 31, No. 10

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