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Carolyn Rovee-Collier, 72; psychologist studied infant memories

Dr. Rovee-Collier’s specialty was largely unexplored by the giants of psychology.
Dr. Rovee-Collier’s specialty was largely unexplored by the giants of psychology.Rutgers University

NEW YORK — Most adults do not remember anything before age 3 or 4, a gap that researchers had chalked up to the vagaries of the still-developing infant brain. By some accounts, the infant brain was just not equipped to remember much.

Textbooks referred to the deficiency as infant amnesia.

Carolyn Rovee-Collier, a developmental psychologist at Rutgers University who died Oct. 2 at 72, challenged the theory, showing in a series of papers in the early 1980s that babies remember plenty.

A 3-month-old can recall what he or she learned yesterday, she found, and a 9-month-old can remember a game for as long as a month and a half.

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She cited experiments suggesting that memory processes in adults and infants are virtually the same, and argued that infant memories were never lost. They just become increasingly harder to retrieve as the child grows, learns language, and loses touch with the visual triggers that had kept those memories sharp — a view from between the bars of a crib, say, or the view of the floor as a crawler, not a toddler, sees it.

Not all of Dr. Rovee-Collier’s theories won over the psychology establishment, which still uses the infant amnesia concept to explain why people do not remember life as a baby.

But her insights about an infant’s short-term memory and ability to learn have been widely accepted, and have helped recast scientific thinking about the infant mind during the past 30 years. Since the first of her 200 papers was published, infant cognitive studies has undergone a boom in university programs across the country.

It was a field that had been largely unexplored by the giants of psychological theory. Freud and Jean Piaget never directly addressed the subject of infant memory. William James, considered the father of American psychology, guessed that the baby’s mind was a place of “blooming, buzzing confusion.”

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Dr. Rovee-Collier, who in 1974 established the Rutgers Early Learning Project, was among the first psychologists to seek answers about infants’ cognitive ability from infants themselves — by testing them.

“She was the one who opened the field of infant memory to research,” said Patricia J. Bauer, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “ There weren’t many people thinking about what babies know.”

Dr. Rovee-Collier was born in Nashville and grew up in Baton Rouge, La.

She married George Collier, a psychology professor at Rutgers, in 1977.

She leaves her husband and two sons, Christopher, an assistant professor of English at LSU, and Benjamin, whose role in his mother’s early research prompted him to claim — after he became a financial planner — that she owed him royalties.