Voices, glances, flashbacks: our first memories; considering the novelty and richness of the first few years of life, why are our early memories so fragmented?

Voices, glances, flashbacks: our first memories; considering the novelty and richness of the first few years of life, why are our early memories so fragmented?

Patrick Huyghe

The earliest memory that I have is of waking up one morning with blood on my pillow and being extremely frightened.”

“I don’t remember how old I was, but I distinctly remember the joy of digging both hands into the dirt and stuffing it into my mouth.”

“My first memory is of a chocolate birthday cake with white frosting and pink trim, and a little wooden train chugging around it.”

Think back, for a moment, to your earliest memory. It is probably not your doctor’s hands in the delivery room, or even your precarious first step. More likely, the tantalizing event occurred several years later. Perhaps you recall the birth of a sibling or the death of a family member or pet. Many first memories are of mundane events or images: sitting on the stairs, having a picture taken, eating a bowl of cereal.

That first childhood memory is notoriously hard to pin down. To be certain that you are in fact remembering, you must avoid the influence of family photographs and stories, which you may unintentionally substitute for true memories. While the distinction between memory and memento is easy to understand, in practice it is often hard to make. And even when you do manage to summon up an early experience, you may find it difficult to date accurately.

Or it may not have happened at all. Child psychologist Jean Piaget used to tell of a memory at the age of 2 in which he was nearly kidnapped as his nurse was wheeling him down the street in Paris. His recollection included the fact that the nurse’s face was scratched by the kidnappers during the fracas. But when he was in his teens, the nurse confessed that she had fabricated the entire story.

Our earliest childhood memories have a magical quality about them, if for no other reason than their being the apparent beginnings of our conscious lives. These “islands in the sea of oblivion,” as the novelist Esther Salaman called them, have fascinated psychologists for more than a century, and their studies of the phenomenon indicate that most people’s early memories are remarkably similar on the surface.

“Almost all of our earliest memories are located in the fourth year of life, between the third and fourth birthdays,” psychologist John Kihlstrom of the University of Wisconsin says. His survey of 314 high school and college students, conducted with Columbia University psychologist Judith Harackiewicz, found that most early recollections are visual, many in color. Their content, however, varies widely, and seems to fall into three broad categories: trauma, transition and trivia. Other studies have shown that the first memories of women appear to date back somewhat further than those of men, but the difference, which is no more than a few months, may be due to earlier brain development among girls.

The pioneers of psychoanalysis attached great significance to first memories. Freud believed that they could open the secret chambers of a person’s inner life. Alfred Adler, originator of the Individual Psychology school, said, “The first memory will show the individual’s fundamental view of life.” Adler believed that childhood memories have a great diagnostic value, regardless of whether they are real or imaginary, because of their unique capacity for revealing a person’s attitude toward self, others and life in general. Interestingly, Adler, who conceived of the inferiority complex, had a vivid first memory of sitting on a bench, sidelined by disease, wtaching his brother play.

In their autobiographies, various public figures show their tendency to fasten onto early experiences that are important to them. Golda Meir’s earliest recollection, which she thought might have been a dream, was of a group of Jews being trampled by cossack horses in czarist Russia. The earliest memories of Seymour Papert, the creator of the LOGO computer language for children, center on wheels, mechanical devices and figuring out what things do and how they work. Albert einstein remembered receiving a magnetic compass at about the age of 4 or 5 and being awed by the needle’s urge to point north.

“Some people think that these early experiences may somehow form personality, and that’s why they get remembered,” Kihlstrom says, “but I don’t think that’s right.” Do our memories make us, or do we make our memories? “I think that personality leads to selectivity of memory,” Kihlstrom says. “People remember things that are consistent with the concept they have of themselves.”

Considering the novelty and richness of the first several years of life, it is perhaps surprising that adults have so few early recollections. This apparent amnesia has been a puzzle to psychologists ever since Freud observed it in his patients at the turn of the century.

The phenomenon, which he labeled infantile or childhood amnesia, applies only to our memories about the self, not to our memory for words or recognizable objects and people. Freud believed that we lose contact with most of our autobiographical memories from the first six years because as children, during the Oedipal phase, we repress anxiety-evoking memories of sexuality and aggression. All that remains, he noted, are “screen memories,” memories that are totally lacking in feeling.

“Childhood amnesia does exist, but it’s not necessarily Oedipal,” contends Emory University psychology professor Ulric Neisser. “The child forgets everything about the self, not just sexual or aggressive memories. We begin to remember our life pretty well only from about the age of 5 or 6 because that’s when we go to school and develop an organized structure for our lives.”

But if schooling does allow children to better encode episodes for later retrieval, it would seem to follow that children who attend nursery school or other prekindergarten schools should have more early memories than those who did not. So far there haven’t been any studies, however, to confirm this intriguing hypothesis.

“The evidence that the phenomenon of childhood amnesia even exists is mostly anecdotal,” Kihlstrom says. Some people claim to have memories that date back before the age of 3, and most surveys of childhood memories indicate that there is no age when continuous, uninterrupted memories consistently begin. We are simply less likely to retain a memory as more time elapses from the event.

So perhaps what we call childhood amnesia is really no different from normal forgetting. “After all,” says David Rubin, a researcher in human memory at Duke University, “hildhood was a long time ago, and perhaps the reason we don’t remember much of it is because we have just normally forgotten it.”

People often assume that they cannot remember anything before about age 3, not because they have forgotten, but because they were incapable of storing memories in the first place. The evidence for this is conflicting. “If you look at a 3- or 4-year-old in action,” Neisser says, “you will see a person who remembers quite a lot, in the sense that you can ask a 4-year-old about things that happened the year before and get very intelligent answers. It’s not that they have no memory, but when they become 10 or 12 or 20, they don’t remember those things much anymore.”

Psychologist Marion Perlmutter and her associates at the University of Michigan have been assessing the mnemonic abilities of preschool children in both experimental and naturalistic settings since the mid 1970s. In one study, she and psychologist Christine Todd examined the conversations between young children and adults to determine, among other things, the lenght of time children could retain information. They found that children between 35 months and 38 months old could remember events that had occurred more than seven-and-a-half months previously. The older children, those between 45 months and 54 months old, recalled episodes that had occurred as much as 14-1/2 months ago.

Perlmutter was particularly impressed by the fact that in some cases the children “demonstrated a verbal recall for events that occurred prior to the time that they were speaking extensively.” Her findings contradict some psychologists’ long-held notion that children’s autobiographical memory develops with language ability.

The study of memory in children who aren’t yet speaking relies on the evidence of habituation and other forms of conditioned learning. In a study with psychologist Daniel Ashmead, Perlmutter asked parents to keep a diary recording the actions of their 7-, 9- and 11-month-old infants that revealed the use of memory. “Albert eating lunch,” one typical entry reads. “Handed Dorine [the babysitter] his glass. Dorine saw it was empty and filled it. He did the same for me several days ago. Twice during one meal he handed me his glass. Each time it was empty. Each time I filled it.”

While all the infants in the study showed some spontaneous memory, such episodes were less frequent among the youngest infants. Perlmutter also found that older infants were more likely to reveal actual memory, rather than to just respond to a familiar environmental cue. “We think that this is evidence of something like recall memory beginning to appear in the older infants,” she says.

When a child is between 8 and 12 months old, a change does seem to occur in memory abilities. Some psychologists see the change as a transition from conditioned recognition and response to recall memory, but others, such as Daniel Schacter and Morris Moscovitch of the University of Toronto, suggest that two different memory systems are at work. They refer to these systems as early and late memories.

Schacter and Moscovitch compared the performance of two groups: amnesiacs, who have an impaired memory system, and very young infants, who have not yet fully developed a memory system. They used a simple task that Piaget made famous in 1954. Piaget had observed that 7- to 8-month-old infants can easily find an object when it is hidden at the same location all the time. But after several successful searches at that location, many infants continue to search there even after seeing the object hidden someplace else.

“The amnesiac remembers where you put the object in the first place,” Schacter says, “but then gets tripped up when you switch locations, just like the infant.” But while amnesiacs continue to make the error, infants stop making it as they approach their first birthday. Schacter thinks that the appearance of a late memory system may explain this improvement. “The neural machinery that underlies the ability to remember the past may be in place within a year of birth. Any further developments in memory are probably the result of building up the knowledge base and integrating this machinery with other cognitive functions.”

Studies of visual and auditory memory have shown that even the youngest of infants are consistently more responsive to novel stimuli than to familiar stimuli. These observations have led many psychologists to conclude that infants have a memory capacity from birth.

“Infants are able to encode and retain some information about their visual world from the first hours of life,” Perlmutter says. Other researchers have shown that premature infants, with an average gestational age of 35 weeks, can discriminate between novel and familiar stimuli.

Despite evidence for early infant memory, psychologists have been reluctant to date the origins of memory before birth. Prebirth memory remains largely uncharted territory, and even those who willingly concede the possibility that the fetus has the rudimentary capacity to encode experience will cry foul at the claims for prebirth memories.

“On one level the subject is very, very controversial,” Rubin explains, “but on another level it’s totally dull. Why should the act of birth increase your learning abilities?”

Research by Anthony DeCasper at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro strongly implies the existence of prebirth memory. In his study, a newborn infant could choose to hear a recording of its mother’s voice or that of another woman by sucking on a nipple in a particular way. Infants as young as 30 hours consistently chose their mothers’ voices.

It is very likely that they recognized their mothers’ voices from what they heard in the womb. As Rubin points out, “The acoustics are there. There are studies in which microphones have been placed in the uterus of sheep and the sound is not muffled as much as you might think.”

But in general, claims for birth and prebirth memories are regarded with suspicion by psychologists, most of whom tread more traditional ground in trying to answer the question, “When does autobiographical memory begin?”

Katherine Nelson, a developmental psychologist at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has studied the question of early memories in connection with “scripts” that children have for familiar events. These scripts refer to the way children have organized their acquired knowledge in terms of general events. According to her theory, children have scripts for such familiar routines as eating dinner at home and going to the supermarket. This script-building appears by age 1, or earlier.

“The drive to build up these scripts seems to come out of a biological need to understand what is going on,” Nelson says. “So the child doesn’t need language or anything else; all that is needed is the background of experience.”

While these scripts help children remember general events, they can also block or override memories of specific experiences. Nelson found that while 3- and 4-year-old children can produce reasonably good general accounts of dinner at home, they have difficulties producing an account of a specific dinner. They will speak about “what happens” rather than “what happened.” Perhaps this explains why children insist upon routines, she says.

Nelson speculates that certain memories are lost as children enter specific experiences into their more general scripts. Unique events, like going to the circus, may be more memorable because they haven’t been repeated or overridden by other similar experiences. “But after a while, if you don’t go to the circus, you will forget about it, because it’s not adaptive to hold onto that memory if it’s not going to tell you anything about the future,” Nelson says.

By the time children are 2 or 3, speech has developed and memory begins to show signs of social construction. “Children are also taught to remember by their parents,” Nelson says, “when they say such things as ‘Do you remember when we went to the store last week and you said such and such?’ So their memory becomes at least partially formulated in terms of language. At about the age of 3, significant variations of emotionally involving events begin to create a memory string that is uniquely human and social. That’s when autobiographical memory begins.”

Although Nelson’s view of early memory development does not pretend to explain the multitude of phenomena involved in memory, it certainly ties up a lot of loose ends regarding autobiographical memory. If, as she says, memory proceeds from the accumulation of single novel experiences, repeated and built into scripts, and then to unique events capable of being shared, it should be easy to see why we, as adults, cannot remember specific autobiographical memories before about the fourth year of life. Such memories could not form until a significant general base of event knowledge had been established. And this, of course, would take a number of years to build up. The reason that early memories are so elusive may be that the process of gaining autobiographical memories is like other developmental processes, something learned with time.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group