Conclusions

Perhaps the most significant fact about long-term event memory that contemporary developmental research has revealed is the sheer complexity of the web of factors that support it. Early theorists might have been surprised to learn that as evidence for a biological contribution to event memory performance has become more detailed and compelling, so has evidence for an environmental contribution.

Theory and limited empirical inquiry focusing on the influence of maturational factors on long-term event memory have brought gratifying insights in recent years. For example, recent attempts to connect a growing body of knowledge about hippocampal and frontal lobe development to developments in long-term retention have been important. They highlight the almost certain probability that changes at the level of the brain contribute substantially to specific behavioral phenomena developmentalists have long grappled with. These phenomena include, for example, the ontogenetic shift from implicit to explicit event memories and the growing ability to identify the source of memories acquired during single, one-point-in-time events. A significant challenge for the coming decades will be to map out with precision the developmental trajectory of brain functions relevant to long-term memory and the ways in which they might predict differences across individuals and across tasks at various points in development. This task is complex in and of itself, and it is made more so by the fact that memory development takes place in connection with many other dramatic cognitive shifts.

Long-term memories, most notably those carried from childhood into adulthood, are also profoundly influenced by environmental factors. In fact, it is clear that not one but many layers of the environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1993) impact upon the timing, structure, and content of memories as development unfolds. Recognition of this fact underscores the paramount importance of including a careful analysis of context in any consideration of long-term event memory, as noted in the introduction to this chapter. The cross-cultural research reviewed here has provided compelling evidence of the importance of these multiple environmental layers. The studies that we and others have conducted with populations in various countries point to differences in children's microsystems, or immediate environments, that have potency for long-term memory. Importantly, these microsystem differences are closely linked with differences at the level of the macrosystem or the more general mileu in which children live.

Work on the nature of parent-child conversations about past events provides an excellent example of this connected set of influences. Studies exploring the origin and details of differences in such conversations across cultures and individuals are ongoing. However, even in the past 5 years, we have gained clarity on the point that natural variations are more extensive than previously suspected.

Further, the implications of such variations for children's long-term memory also appear to be more extensive than previously documented. At the microsystem level, talking about the past with an adult often influences the content of children's specific memory reports, determining which details of a particular experience are strengthened and which fade. At the same time, regular exposure to a particular normative way of conversing about the past may have equally significant effects. Such differences in conversational norms are determined by macrosystem-level factors, For example, what people believe about the importance of personal event memory and about other relevant issues such as what constitutes ideal child-rearing practices or the optimal degree of self-focus are part of this broader macrosystem. Such beliefs vary normatively across cultures, and they may drive how children come to think about the meaning of personal experiences, and how children allocate attention in the face of the novel events that eventually become the subject of long-term memories.

For researchers focusing on environmental influences on long-term memory, the charge in coming years will be to continue to document the subtleties of belief, conversation, and thoughts about the personal past that differ across individuals and cultures. Equally essential, and perhaps more difficult, will be to explain with precision differences in long-term memory in connection with complex and sometimes idiosyncratic cultural value systems and practices. Eventually, advances in both the biological and environmental realms of research on long-term memory may enable us to explain the still mysterious synchrony that determines what we remember and what we forget from childhood.

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