Studying the secrets of childhood memory

Courtrooms, hospitals, classrooms and many other areas of life benefit from Deirdre Brown’s research into how children recall events.

Dr Deirdre Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology

Can we trust what children say? Is it true children don’t lie, and do children have the same ability to recall information as adults?

These questions carry a huge political and emotional charge, and tend to be polarising. Yet understanding how much we can rely on what children tell us is critically important in courtrooms, hospitals, classrooms and many other areas of life.

Dr Deirdre Brown, a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Psychology, researches effective ways of helping children describe their experiences. She also investigates what kind of questions might undermine children’s ability to accurately remember what has happened to them.

Dr Brown came to the University in 2009 after working as a clinician in Dunedin Hospital’s paediatric department. She now leads the University's Applied Developmental Psychology Lab and works closely with the Ministry for Vulnerable Children and New Zealand Police to train specialist child witness interviewers.

“I’m lucky to be able to work at both a theoretical and a very applied level,” she says. “We need to have a strong theoretical basis to our work, but we also need to understand the huge real-life outcomes of situations such as protecting children from abuse and also protecting adults from wrongful allegations of abuse.

“We still have a lot to learn. From an interview perspective, we have a consensus about which strategies help a child give a detailed and accurate account of an event, and those that don’t help. But we still don’t know enough about how to translate that information into practices an interviewer can follow.”

Dr Brown says a complicating factor is research suggests something surprising about the development of interviewers’ skills—people don’t seem to get better at interviewing the longer they do it. How to support interviewers to follow recommended interviewing approaches beyond their initial training is an important question.

Children may provide the same proportion of accurate information in their descriptions of events, says Dr Brown, but they are more vulnerable to suggestion than adults and may require more support to remember and report what they know.

The way parents talk to children has a huge impact on a child’s memory development. Children are still learning how to recall experiences, so it’s helpful to ask them open-ended questions that enable them to elaborate on their responses.

Dr Brown suggests children’s memory should be assessed the same way as children’s development. A paediatrician evaluating development will consider many factors: if one or two developmental milestones haven’t yet been reached but everything else is on track, the paediatrician may decide to just watch and wait, but numerous red flags across several areas of development might signal a need for further investigation.

“If we’re asking a child to recall something, we have to consider what we know about children’s memory to determine whether a disclosure is more or less likely to be accurate.”

Dr Brown says people of any age can develop false memories that are rich, detailed and indistinguishable from real memories. She had her own experience of the fallibility of remembering past events accurately while she was a university student.

“I was talking to my mother and I made a random comment about how my grandfather had died. She laughed and said I’d got his cause of death completely wrong, and that he’d actually died in hospital after a heart attack,” she says.

“I was certain I remembered her telling me he’d died after being trapped under a tree, but it turned out that was someone else. At the time, I was studying false memory.

“Mum still teases me about that.”

One of Dr Brown’s research projects looked at whether young children reconstructed memory the same way as older children and adults. A researcher acting as a photographer touched a group of children aged five to seven on the same parts of the body—the shoulders, feet, waist, ears and wrists—while dressing them in pirate costumes.

When the children were later asked to make crosses on human figure drawings to show where they had been touched, many made errors. Some left crosses out, while some added extra crosses suggesting they had been touched on other parts of the body, including the genitals and buttocks.

Dr Brown says there are many reasons why the children might have included incorrect information, such as wanting to please the interviewer or regarding the task as similar to a puzzle or colouring-in activity.

Another of Dr Brown’s studies challenges the view children with intellectual disabilities can’t be trusted to describe their experiences accurately.

Children with intellectual disabilities are estimated to be up to four times as likely to be abused as typically developed children, yet are much less likely to have their allegations investigated or taken to court. However, Dr Brown’s research found children with intellectual disabilities could provide accurate and detailed information about their experiences when interviewed properly.

Dr Brown is now leading a study supported by a $585,000 Marsden Fund grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

She is collaborating with researchers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Cornell University in the United States on the project, which explores whether young children reconstruct memories the same way as older children and adults.

“I’ve found Victoria University of Wellington a lively and energetic research environment,” says Dr Brown. “I have great colleagues in the School of Psychology and we have lots of opportunities to work across disciplines.

“I’m also able to include my research in my teaching. I love teaching as well as researching because students often offer me insights that get me thinking about things in different ways. It’s really stimulating and rewarding.”