Dawn of Memories

The meaning of early recollections in life

A Journey With Early Childhood Memories

How to understand the meaning of early recollections in life.

For forty years, I have studied and utilized early recollections as a personality appraisal tool in therapeutic and informal contexts.   As a graduate student in the 1970’s, I was introduced to the projective technique in a Theories of Counseling class focusing on the work of Alfred Adler.  Through a class activity, I explored one of my first remembrances, and have been hooked on the procedure ever since.  In my early memory, as a six-year-old, I was shocked when I realized that I had lost all of the money that my relatives had given me on this day of my First Communion.  Immediately, I connected the memory to a lifetime problem that I had with money.  I never had much money, but what little that I did have, I would fret about losing or needlessly spending.  My early recollection also made sense to me in terms of how I would sabotage opportunities to enjoy life by refusing to spend my meager funds.  As I began to realize the self-defeating and distressful nature of my ingrained fiscal convictions, I started to make small changes which enabled me to spend cash with less lament and anguish.

As I start my blog series, I wish to share my experiences with early recollections as a projective technique in order to begin a dialogue on the first memories of childhood.  In the thousands of times that I have used early recollections with clients, the exchanges have helped me gain penetrating glimpses into the ways of being of a diverse range of individuals.  As I tried to build my skills in interpreting the remembrances, I found that empathy is key for understanding their meaning.  For some years, I studied the topics of early recollections and empathy together and explored the vast literature in each domain.  Yet, even though my enthusiasm for early memories was strong, I was perplexed and dismayed to learn that the procedure was infrequently used among human service providers.  How could a tool that seemed to me be so effective in gaining deep insights into human functioning be largely ignored by counselors and psychotherapists?  Even though Adler introduced the projective approach over 100 years ago, the procedure, with the exception of practitioners with an Adlerian orientation, remains relatively unknown. 

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In order to begin to address this lack of familiarity, I have been on a mission to expand an awareness of early recollections to mental health practitioners.  Through numerous publications, including a book for counselors and psychotherapists, and numerous presentations to professional groups, I have set out on a journey to enhance the visibility of the projective technique.  Although this pursuit has made some small gains, I know that the quest must be broadened in order to make more of a difference. 

In recent years, I have begun to share knowledge about the first memories of childhood with the general public including a recently published book  In a similar way that the remembrances shed light on my excessive frugality, early recollections have a potential to enhance self-understanding for individuals beyond those requiring therapeutic intervention.  When I would ask my friends and relatives about their early recollections and made public appearances before assembled audiences, invariably people were intrigued by the interactions as they gained insights into their personalities and perceptions of life.  If these efforts prove fruitful in expanding a public awareness of the remembrances, perhaps practitioners may also increase their interest in the personality appraisal tool.

In much the same way that I hate to waste money, it is also wasteful to have a resource which enables people to understand themselves to remain in obscurity.  I invite you to join me in what I have found to be a fascinating search to understand and effectively employ early recollections in the service of human understanding.

Art J. Clark, Ph.D., is a professor at St. Lawrence University.


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