Digging into Your Personal Past
What early memories tell us about who we are today
by Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P. reviewed by Laura Jana, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Try as you might, you simply cannot remember everything that you have experienced–not yesterday, not a week ago, and certainly not when you were a child. In fact, very few of us remember much at all from our first three or four years. What memories we do hold on to are like the broken bits of ancient pottery, long buried in the sand. Yet, these fragments of memory can give us precious clues about our personalities.
We rely on our memories to tell ourselves who we are, to anchor us. People who have lost their memories through brain damage are condemned to drift through life. But efore taking a closer look at your earliest memories, consider for a moment the puzzle that is memory. Autobiographical memories–the memories of what we have experienced and done in our lives–are at once indispensable and notoriously untrustworthy.
We believe in our memories, and yet many of them are partial or complete fabrications. In one famous experiment, adults were told by relatives about how they got lost in a department store as a child–an incident that never happened. But after listening to the story several times, they developed memories of the event, complete with details that were entirely made up. And they persisted in believing these memories even after the researchers told them how they had been tricked.
In another experiment, on the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, college students were asked to write down how they had first heard about the disaster. Three years later, the same students were asked to recall the day. About a quarter of their remembered accounts were completely different from the original journal entries.
These experiments, and many like them, have convinced researchers that memory cannot be thought of as a “bank” where people deposit their experiences and withdraw them unchanged years later. Rather, memories are creations of the moment, weaving together bits of stored experience with later-acquired knowledge and thoughts. In the process some elements are dropped and others elaborated on.
The value of earliest memories
Paradoxically, it is this very fluid nature of memory that makes early childhood memories so valuable. The fact that memories are always changing means that memories that have lasted for years and years must be meaningful–otherwise they would have faded out like the millions of other memories and impressions that disappeared without a trace. The very earliest memories, it follows, must be the most meaningful.
Psychologists have pondered early memories for the past century. Sigmund Freud, wondering why “the earliest recollection of a person often seemed to preserve the unimportant and accidental,” suggested that seemingly trivial early memories might be “screens” hiding memories that were unacceptable to the conscious mind. Alfred Adler, a key figure in ego psychology who also stressed the importance of birth order, wrote that a person’s earliest memories are “the reminders he carries about with him of his own limits…a story he repeats to himself to warn or comfort him, to keep him concentrated on his goal.”
More recently, several psychologists have developed systems for analyzing early memories as a form of personality assessment. None of these lend themselves to easy “how to” instructions, but there are some general principles which can help to guide your explorations of your earliest recollections:
Memories from early childhood are rare. Few people have more than a handful of them, and more than 90 percent of early memories are memories not of events themselves, but of accounts by other people of those events. How can you tell if yours is a secondhand memory? If you can see yourself in your memory, as though you were looking from across a room or down from the ceiling, then the memory cannot be an actual replay of your experience. But just because a memory is secondhand does not make it any less meaningful for you. After all, it is a memory that you have chosen to hang on to!
Think about the role you play. Are you a passive observer in your memories, or are you active? Are you exploring, taking physical action, communicating? How you portray yourself to yourself in your earliest memories may give you insights into your character that weren’t obvious before.
Think about relationships. In your memory, are you alone or with others? Are they helpful, caring, and supportive, or hostile and frightening? Earliest memories may shed light on the way you habitually perceive other people, a critical aspect of what Adler called your “style of life.”
Think about emotions. In your memory, do you feel happy, sad, scared, angry, or confused? In daily life, emotions change from day to day and from moment to moment. The emotional tone of your early memories may be telling you something about a more fundamental, underlying emotional response to the world. If nothing else, the emotional flavor of your earliest memories raises a question: Is this how you feel most of the time?
In addition to your earliest memory, consider a larger set of first memories: first memory of parents or siblings, going to school, playing with a friend, getting into an argument, being frightened, and so on.
Write your memories down and look for patterns. The process of remembering and pondering won’t necessarily lead to a sudden revelation about your deepest nature, but it will make you a more introspective, self-aware individual.
The topic of traumatic memories–memories of physical or sexual abuse–is tremendously controversial. You may find that thinking about your earliest memories is fascinating or perhaps confusing. But if you find it to be upsetting, let that be a signal to you to stop. If you feel, however, that you need to explore this area of yourself further, please do so with the guidance of a qualified professional.
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