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For most people (my earliest memories are of perhaps when I was 2 or so) their earliest memories would be when they were over a year old.

How old does the average baby have to be before it can retain memories? Are there any preconditions that need to be fulfilled?

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I wish I had the time to do some research and give you a proper answer with references, but exams... As far as I know, the brain starts working completely even before birth (including memory function - think about it, a newborn remembers who its parents are), and you can't remember anything from before aorund age 3 because of radical rearrangements while shaping personality. If nobody answers in two weeks, I'll get back to you ;) –  Armatus Jun 13 '12 at 18:15
I'll wait. What you mentioned there about the brain working completely even before birth was where I was headed myself - Why do we seem to remember nothing from our period as a foetus? My guess was that it is a sterile environment - nothing new ever happens. Anyway, regardless of whether anybody else replies, please do post your thoughts after the exams. All the best for them! –  Everyone Jun 13 '12 at 18:38
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Surely a important question. But there are different kinds of memory (classified mainly as declarative and procedural) which you don't specify exactly in your question. Wikipedia and Scholarpedia list here many known facts. I will give you some short hints and links for introduction and overview instead of pasting that stuff here.

You are probably referring to autobiographical or episodic memory, that is memorizing consciously particular events within one's own life within a context. And for this type of memory researchers agree that self-awareness seems to be a necessary precondition. The existence of this cognitive ability can be checked by the mirror test. Human infants pass this test normally around a age of 18 months (also some animals). The cognitive self develops between 21 and 24 months and marks the end of infantile amnesia.

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Excellent answer! –  Daniel Standage Jun 14 '12 at 2:33
I did indeed mean episodic/autobiographic memory, albeit the terms were not in my dictionary earlier. During the period between birth to when this self-awareness is exhibited, would it be fair to state the baby still acquires knowledge ? E.g. Self/body control (movement of limbs), cause-and-effect (crying to convey discomfort) etc. At some point such knowledge as is already acquired triggers (for want of a more appropriate word) self-awareness? –  Everyone Jun 14 '12 at 7:57
This seems like a funny interpretation to me: if self-awareness is a precondition, we're forced to conclude that many animals never retain memories (e.g. dogs). Under one definition of memory this may be true, but as I read the question it's not the definition the OP is working with. –  Shep Jun 14 '12 at 10:16
@Everyone Your further questions are answered in the first paragraphs of the given link en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_development, e.g. recognizing mother voice or language acquisition. What triggers self-awareness is one of the trickiest questions in science, you should open another question for this. –  Hauser Jun 16 '12 at 13:05
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