[...] The researchers found that whereas adults build integrated memories with inferences already baked in, children and adolescents create separate memories that they later compare to make inferences on the fly.
“How adults structure knowledge is not necessarily optimal for children, because adult strategies might require brain machinery that is not fully mature in children,” said Alison Preston, professor of neuroscience and psychology and senior author of the study published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. She co-led the study with first author Margaret Schlichting, formerly a doctoral student in Preston’s lab and currently assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
To understand the distinction between how adults and children make inferences, imagine visiting a day care center. In the morning, you see a child arriving with one adult, but in the afternoon that child leaves with a different adult. You might infer that the two grown-ups are the child’s parents and are a couple, and your second memory would include both the second person you saw and information from your earlier experience in order to make an inference about how the two adults — whom you didn’t actually see together — might relate to each other.
This new study finds that a child who has the same experiences isn’t likely to make the same kind of inference that an adult would during the second experience. The two memories are less connected. If you ask your child to infer who that child’s parents are, your child can still do it; he or she just has to retrieve the two distinct memories and then reason about how each adult might be related.
Margaret L. Schlichting, Katharine F. Guarino, Hannah E. Roome, et al. Developmental differences in memory reactivation relate to encoding and inference in the human brain, Nature Human Behaviour (DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01206-5)