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Special memory tests performed on 5-month-old babies by researchers revealed that infants may not be able to express it, but they can more easily recall memories associated with positive emotion -such as when parents are playing, talking to and laughing with them.

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Studies prior to this had already revealed babies as very attuned to emotions, including the emotions of animals.

Ross Flom of Brigham Young University was lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development. He said in a statement:

“People study memory in infants, they study discrimination in emotional affect, but we are the first ones to study how these emotions influence memory.”

How do you understand what a 5-month-old is experiencing? Without the luxury of having the children being able to speak, the research team monitored eye movements and measured how long the babies looked at a test image.

A group of mothers and their 5-month-old babies volunteered to help the researchers in order to start their tests. The mothers helped to set their infants in front of the monitor where someone appeared on the screen and started talking to the baby in either a happy, neutral, or angry tone of voice. After the adult was done speaking, the image on the screen was replaced by a geometrical shape on the screen. The researchers wanted to add emotional attachment to images, investigating whether or not that would influence retention.

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Five minutes after this “emotional exposure” test, the researchers noticed that some of the babies saw two side-by-side geometric shapes: a brand new one, and the original one from the study.

(Photo : Brigham Young University)

(Photo : Brigham Young University)

The next step for the research team was to record how many times the baby looked from one image to the next and also how long they spent looking at each shape. One day later, the researchers repeated the same test with the remaining babies, monitoring their eye movements as they showed them the two images.

The end result?

The babies memories didn’t improve if the shape had been paired with a negative voice, but they performed significantly better at remembering shapes attached to positive voices. The Medical Daily reported:

“Following the 5-minute interval, infants exposed to the happy voice showed a “reliable preference” for the novel geometric shape compared to the previously unseen image. The infants who heard a neutral or angry voice did not show this same preference.  After the one day interval, though, infants exposed to both the happy and neutral voice showed a reliable preference for the novel geometric shape. However, paired with a negative voice, the shape did not stick in their memories.”

Flom also reportedly explained:

“We think what happens is that the positive affect heightens the babies’ attentional system and arousal. By heightening those systems, we heighten their ability to process and perhaps remember this geometric pattern.”


(1) Science Direct

(2) IFL Science

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