Dawn of Memories

The meaning of early recollections in life

Why Are Early Recollections Sparse and Prosaic?

Memories of the first years of life are purposeful in number and content

Of the thousands of activities that individuals experience in their first seven years of life, most people are able to recall only a handful of the events. When relating an early recollection, a person typically brings to mind a small number of the remembrances totaling in the single digits. This assumption may appear to be an obvious underestimate considering that countless pursuits, such as eating, playing, or even going to sleep, take place on a daily basis in the initial years of existence. It would seem that an individual could easily invoke hundreds of early childhood occurrences into one’s memory. Yet, in my experience, and that of other practitioners who elicit early recollections as a projective technique, people are generally able to recount four or five early childhood memories before having difficulty summoning more of these remembrances. Importantly, a spontaneous early memory is recollected through an open-ended procedure without suggesting a particular subject or content. Prompting a person to report early recollections of school, home, family, or other cued associations substantially increases the number of memories and may bias their meaning.  

One possible explanation of the sparsity of early recollections is that they are purposeful for an individual, and a high number of the memories might obscure their clarity and essential focus. Consequently, each memory that a person is able to recall from early childhood is significant and influential in terms of its message. Another assumption pertaining to early recollections is that rather than simply being a random and unrelated group of remembrances, the memories form a consistent pattern that is meaningful to the individual. As a set of recollections that augment one another, a person’s early remembrances provide a coherent reminder or affirmation of what life is like or about. Alfred Adler believed that early recollections provide an individual a tested means of understanding life guided by caution, inspiration, apprehension, or other ways of being. In sum, when people recall their early recollections the material evoked in mind relates to ingrained convictions about life formed in early childhood

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Relating to early childhood memories, a framework that I have found to be useful for capturing how a person views life involves beliefs about one’s self, other people, and events. This conceptualization is referred to as a “lifestyle syllogism.” As an example for using the lifestyle syllogism, Erin, who is 30-years-old, relates the following first memory: “I remember being in the back yard of my grandmother’s old house. It was early in the morning and the sun was shining on the side of her house. Even though I was little, Nana asked me if I could help paint her fence. The fence was white, and I helped with the painting. At first Nana held my hand and assisted me in painting a part of the fence. Then she moved away and let me do it all by myself. I felt really good about helping her, and she was pleased with what I had done.” In interpreting Erin’s early recollection, I suggest the following lifestyle syllogism: “I am…helpful and capable.” “Others are…supportive and caring.” “Events are…pleasant and gratifying.”  

Erin is like other people who utilize early memories to remind them about the nature of life and how to approach it. In Erin’s case, her perception of life is that it offers an opportunity to use her competencies to help others. This core conviction is consistent with her present view of life and one that she has maintained for many years. As with most individuals, the content of Erin’s early recollections involves everyday activities and common place features. Even though she had opportunities in the first seven years of her life to visit a number of glorious sites and settings, it is usually not these extraordinary experiences that are recalled in early recollections. Instead, what is generally remembered by a person are rather ordinary situations which are instructive for clarifying the nature of existence.

In another example of an early childhood experience, as a 5-year-old, Evan, had the good fortune to visit the Eiffel Tower with his parents and ride to the top of the landmark. Years later when Evan was a grown man, his parents discussed their family trip to Paris with him. During the conversation, Evan’s parents expressed bewilderment that he was unable to remember gazing out at the city from the Eiffel Tower. Yet, as splendid as the view might have been for Evan, this image did not resonate with him for depicting what life is like or about. Rather, what Evan recalled was how excited he felt in approaching the tower and seeing all sorts of street vendors, while having the opportunity to be with the people that he loved.

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

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