Reading 6.5 – What is remembering, and why don’t we remember when we were toddlers?

Chapter 6 – The Misdirection of Everyday Dialect

Reading 6.5 – What is remembering, and why don’t we remember when we were toddlers?

Would it be shocking to start by asking if there is such a thing as memory? In talking about remembering, although there are some real, physical phenomena to explain, it is important to be careful what we call them and what attributes we assign. The phenomena are what they are, but the terms we use to describe and explain them are, as the title of Chapter 2 suggests, “just verbal behavior.” This characterization should preempt the everyday vocabulary of this topic in favor of a more illuminating conceptual approach proposed by B. F. Skinner in his famous paper, The operational analysis of psychological terms (Skinner, 1945). (See Box 10.2.)

In this application of Skinner’s argument, the challenge in both scientific and vernacular discussions of memory and remembering is not just to avoid rampant mentalism but to be clear about the sources of control over our verbal behavior. Even when we are talking about remembering as behavior, much remains to be specified. For example, when someone misplaces a set of keys and then recalls where he or she last saw them is that the same phenomena as when a rat responds in an experimental preparation on the basis of prior exposure to a stimulus that is no longer present? The question is not whether we might be tempted to say that both organisms “remembered” – surely too casual a label – but whether any distinguishing features of the two circumstances might be the basis for proposing that they may be different phenomena.

The reason for distinguishing among the different physical phenomena that might be involved and giving them different labels is to encourage scientifically useful distinctions. This is a challenging task because it requires us to know enough to make these discriminations, which is the centerpiece of the research agenda in the first place. Lacking this clarity, the broad research literature in this area suggests that measured physiological events represent processes like storing, recalling, memories, and remembering – all of which raise important definitional and conceptual issues.

Let us count (some of) the ways

Consider different ways we talk about the behavior we call remembering, keeping in mind the challenge of evaluating the sources of control over our verbal behavior. In everyday parlance, we often say we are remembering when we can describe something in our past to ourselves or to others. We are likely to say we are remembering when we “see” a visual image of something from our past that is not now present. (Chapter 4 explains seeing in the absence of the thing seen.) However, it is possible that when we do this we are sometimes only describing or tacting our verbal behavior of previously “reporting” the memory. That is, when we say, “I remember the time…” what are we actually doing? Are we engaging in sensory behavior as if we were again in some past situation, such as seeing or hearing in the absence of the event? Or are we just saying something we have said before about an early “memory” but not actually again experiencing the event itself in any way? If so, these would seem to be different behaviors that should have different labels.

Another circumstance in which we say we are remembering is when we do something that we have done before, presumably enabled by our prior experience. I might say, “Do you remember how to get to Chris’s house? And you might say, “Sure, I’ve been there lots of times.” If you successfully get there, does that mean you actually remembered or were explicitly aware of features of the route? This way of labeling memory is troubling because it may be no more than a convenient label for the results of experience. Taken to the extreme – and this may be what we’re doing – it only assures that such references are redundant with the processes of operant learning. If we say that anything we do that we have done before involves memory, the term becomes worth not much at all – a casual vernacular throwaway – because it is not distinguishable from operant learning in general. When you reach for your coffee cup and take a sip, are you remembering how to do this? Is this the same phenomena as remembering your first pet?

We seem most likely to refer to the act of remembering only when we are tacting our own behavior, although this is still an expansive usage. If you privately “sense” a prior event or situation, you are aware or conscious of it. As Chapter 4 points out, this means you are tacting the event or situation in some way. If out of the clear blue you see the first car you owned or hear a tune you like, though without them being present, that act of private sensing is behavior. Such sensing behavior is certainly associated with physiological events in your brain, but it is not the same thing. Putting aside whether we should call the visual or auditory image a memory, the fact that you are aware of such sensations is behavior. By being aware, you are responding to it verbally, however loosely. You can’t be responding to the actual event, which is not present, but whatever is going on in your brain is the physiological basis for emitting the response of seeing your first car or hearing a tune. This response of recognizing or labeling the sensation is at least a minimal form of verbal behavior. Such simple verbal responses are the essence of what we mean when we say we are aware or conscious.

This qualification – having a self-descriptive repertoire or being able to tact our own behavior – would seem to preclude the possibility that non-verbal organisms can engage in this behavior, whatever we want to call it. More cautiously, the fact that this learned self-descriptive ability seems to influence whether we label behavior as remembering suggests that it might be useful to distinguish this kind of responding from otherwise similar responding for which awareness is not apparently possible. So, the behavior of a rat that responds in a certain way in an experimental chamber based on experience with stimuli that are not now present might best be labeled differently than the behavior of a verbal human under comparable circumstances. We cannot know if this is a useful tactical distinction until research eventually tells us one way or the other.

Perhaps we at least ought to distinguish between physiological events and behavioral events that the term “remembering” seems to be associated with, even though each depends on the other in fundamental ways. When we engage in any behavior, there are unavoidably corresponding physiological events that must be part of any comprehensive explanation of the behavior, and some of these events involve the brain. However, it is important to appreciate that what goes on in the brain cannot fully drive or explain what happens with behavior. The reason for this limitation is that although learning processes are ultimately mediated physiologically, they involve the intact organism’s interaction with the environment. We may someday be able to explain exactly what is happening in the brain when a particular behavior occurs, but that explanation will not reveal why the behavior occurred in that way at that moment. That part of the explanation requires understanding the behavioral aspects of learning. Although they are fundamentally intertwined with physiological processes, they involve different kinds of explanation.

Don’t lose sight of the purpose of this conceptual exercise. We are considering our verbal behavior of saying that we – or others – are engaging in a particular kind of behavior called remembering. The challenge is no different than labeling the behavior of a child as “tantrumming.” It is a response class problem: what responses and associated stimulus relations belong in the class and what don’t. If we wish to label a response class as remembering, what responses should be included and excluded? The underlying problem is that not even scientists know enough about the features and limits of the phenomenon of remembering at either the level of behavior or physiology to be sure of our answers. We can at least respect the tactic of analyzing the sources of control over our labeling behavior.

But enough with scientific and conceptual tactics. For purposes of discussion, let’s agree for now to define remembering in terms of what is arguably its most common colloquial reference – tacting a private event in our past that we are “sensing” in some way. That is, let’s say that when we remember, we are engaging in the behavior of seeing or hearing (most commonly) an event that we have previously experienced but that is not now occurring. The fact that these responses take the form recognizing particular private events may be described as tacting. The event might be something simple and brief, such as a visual image of our first bicycle, or complex and extended in time, such as experiences associated with a vacation trip. We do not have a visual image of a bicycle and then tact it as such. Seeing the bicycle is itself the response of tacting, albeit private. This definition of remembering is certainly not all there is to the phenomena, but it is at least how we are often taught by our verbal community to label this kind of behavior.

Now, the first question

With the foregoing preparation, we should now be in a better position to address the second question: Why do we not seem to remember anything from when we were a baby or even a toddler, say from birth to the age at which first memories are typically reported – about three years of age? The answer is hidden in the above discussion.

First, it is probably important to acknowledge that it may take a bit of time for a baby to accumulate sufficient experience for its brain to develop the physiological foundation required for the behavior of remembering. This limitation may be a sufficient explanation for not remembering anything from the earliest few months of life. However, it is presumably not a viable basis for not remembering events later in the first year and beyond.

Second, in explaining the behavior of remembering as defined in the preceding discussion, we must acknowledge that it is entirely learned from our verbal community. That is, we cannot assume that the behavior of sensing – tacting – events we have previously experienced but that are not now occurring magically appears at some age merely as a result of being human. Given our working definition of remembering, it clearly requires a verbal repertoire, and Chapter 2 briefly explains how this repertoire can only result from learning processes mediated by members of a verbal community. In fact, we know a lot about how this verbal skill develops, especially in the early years. Like other complex features of our repertoire, our verbal capabilities build fairly slowly. Chapter 2 notes that there isn’t much more than babbling during the first six months, and the first words at around 11 months don’t exactly make much of a verbal repertoire. Even by three years, a vocabulary of 800 words is a pretty small sample of where things will eventually go.

It’s not just a matter of the size of the vocabulary, however. Those 800 words are prerequisites of a rudimentary skill of tacting the world around us, including our own behavior. It is this capability that is required for the behavior of remembering. As we learn to tact our behavior, our ability to remember grows. At first, the challenge is just to report things that we did recently, such as what we had for breakfast or where we put a toy. As we get better at noticing and describing our present behavior, we improve our ability to describe our past behavior.

In other words, if we did not learn to identify or describe our behavior and our interface with the world around us, we would have no means of remembering, as defined for purposes of this discussion. Because what we colloquially call remembering most often involves recognizing or describing events in our past, such behavior is not possible until we learn to do this. We don’t remember our experiences very well prior to getting pretty good at the verbal behavior of remembering. Of course, this ability develops gradually and at a different pace from one child to another, so the age at which we can later report our earliest memories varies somewhat.

This argument should not be surprising. Chapter 4 discusses the radical behavioristic view of awareness in this same way. Awareness is fundamentally about our ability to observe our own behavior, and these observations involve recognizing – in effect, tacting or describing – what we are doing. We are accustomed to not being able to recall experiences we had but were not aware of at the time, such as driving while lost in thought. We initially encounter our early childhood experiences without awareness, and develop the skills of self-observation and self-description only slowly. At some point, our self-observation gets sufficiently practiced that we are aware of more of our experiences and are able to tact them when they occur and sometimes long after the fact as well.

So, why do our childhood memories seem to begin only after we are a few years old? The answer is that remembering in the most frequent sense of the word requires a self-descriptive repertoire, which is inherently verbal. Until that repertoire develops to a certain point, we are not especially aware of our behavior and its environmental context because the contingencies established by our verbal community have not yet led to an adequate way of describing it or the events in which we participate. In other words, we do not remember under these circumstances because we have not learned how, just as we do not remember events throughout our lives when we are unaware of them.


Skinner, B. F. (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. In Psychological Review, 52, 270-277.