The self in memory

Locating the surprise mark in the real world indicates mirror self-recognition at 2 years

It is well established that most children recognize themselves in mirrors by the end of infancy (2 years). However, further research is needed to elucidate how the development of self-recognition impacts on children’s cognition and behaviour. One way to address this gap in the literature is to explore the role of self in young children’s event memory.

My PhD research included a series of experiments showing that 3- and 4-year-old children, like adults, are better able to remember items if they are asked to relate them to the self, either physically (by performing an associated action), visually (by viewing the item together with the self-image) or socio-cognitively (by being told they own the item). These advantages imply that physical or cognitive involvement of self has a functional impact on memory as early as 3 years. These effects may be used to improve our understanding of the development of autobiographical memory. To find out more see: Ross, J., Anderson, J.R. & Campbell, R.N. I remember me: Investigating mnemonic self-reference effects in preschool children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 76, 1-102.

Dr Sheila Cunningham, University of Abertay
Dr Jacqui Hutchison, University of Aberdeen

I moved on to collaborate with Dr. Shelia Cunningham of the University of Abertay and project postdoc Jacqui Hutchison, to explore how developmental self-reference effects may interact with the ontogeny of autobiographical memory and self-evaluation. This project, titled “The ‘me’ in memory: Exploring the developing self and its influence on cognition” was funded by a 3 year (£106, 336) stipend from the Leverhulme Research Grants Scheme. You can read more about the project in the Leverhulme Newsletter_Jan 2015 and by visiting the ‘me in memory’ project website.

The first paper from this project evidences the role of self-awareness in the offset of childhood amnesia. You can read more here: Ross, J., Hutchison, J., & Cunningham, S. J. (2020). The Me in Memory: The Role of the Self in Autobiographical Memory Development. Child Development.

The second demonstrates that different levels of self-referencing have different developmental trajectories across middle childhood. Self-reference effects based solely on the attention grabbing properties of own face onset early and remain stable across middle childhood, whereas self-reference effects based on self-evaluative processing increase between 8 years and adulthood. You can read more here: Hutchison, J. Ross, J., & Cunningham, S.J. (2021). Development of evaluative and incidental self-reference effects in childhood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

A final paper applies the self-referencing paradigm to explore the role of self in the memory, attention and social processing difficulties of children with ADHD (in preparation).

We have also been working with teachers to explore the potential for the self-referencing advantage to be applied in the classroom to support literacy and numeracy. For example see: Cunningham, S.J., Scott, L., Hutchison, J., Ross, J. & Martin, D. (2018). Applications of the self-memory bias: Improving learning through ownership. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

In 2020, Sheila and Josephine began a new collaborative project, together with Dr Janet McLean, University of Abertay.  This Economic and Social Sciences Research Council funded (£481, 947) project further explores the influence of self-cues on children’s information processing and retention in educational settings, seeking to have translational impact.