Probing Question: Do children have better memories than adults do?

Rick Gilmore, associate professor of psychology, answers:

"Sometimes it seems like children remember things adults do not, but in fact, adults have better memory if by better memory we mean the ability to remember more information, more accurately, and for longer periods of time.

cartoon kid thinking at computer
James Collins

What's on your mind?

"Scientists actually divide up memory into different types depending on what is remembered and for how long. Memories for skills, like riding a bicycle, differ from those associated with facts, e.g., who was Napoleon. The brain appears to store these types of memories in different ways and probably in different circuits. Children's brains develop most rapidly in infancy, but continue to mature throughout childhood, with a notable burst in adolescence. This is one reason why children's memories differ from adults. Their brains are still changing rapidly. Adult brains change too, but not as quickly or dramatically.

"Perhaps more important for remembering information day in and day out are two memory-boosting skills common among adults but not young children: metamemory and source monitoring. Metamemory refers to our own awareness of what we know or remember and what we do not. Children, especially preschoolers, have very poor metamemory. They are often more confident about what they remember than they should be. Children also have to learn what most adults already know — memories are fallible. Adults use their knowledge about their own memory to compensate by repeating important information over and over again, writing things down, and by other strategies; children do not do so reliably. The second memory skill at which neurologically normal adults generally surpass children is source memory. Source memory refers to knowledge about the source of one's memory — where or from whom one learned a particular fact or event. Sometimes remembering where we learned a forgotten fact can help bring it back to mind, but this strategy works better for adults than for children, at least until children are well into school-age.

"Finally, the more you already know, the more you can remember. Memory capacity is finite, but our brains seem designed to put facts and skills together in meaningful ways. This gives old dogs, who have more experiences, a leg up, so to speak, on younger ones when it comes to remembering old tricks or facts. The new tricks? Well, everyone knows how the saying goes."

Rick O. Gilmore, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, directs the Infant Brain Development and Cognition Laboratory at Penn State. He can be reached at babylab@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 14, 2005