In her Psychology Today post, Lynne Soraya recently responded to my Psychology Today blog post that I wrote on the sparse and prosaic qualities of early recollections. In my experience in using early recollections as a projective technique, most people are able to recall three or four remembrances, but then begin to have difficulty retrieving more memories. I have also found that an individual’s early childhood memories tend to be common place and hardly seem notable except to the person retrieving the memory.
In her post, Ms. Soraya took exception to my findings, as she was able to rapidly bring to mind numerous and vivid first memories. In a call to followers on her Asperger’s Diary post, Lynne heard from a number of people on the autism spectrum who described access to sensory-laden and intense memories. In Lynne’s experience and those of individuals writing to her post, my position that people tend to recount only a handful of rather ordinary recollections seems inaccurate. Lynne also raised the question: Is it possible that people on the autism spectrum experience early memories that are different from those of neurotypical persons?
My background with people on the autism spectrum is somewhat limited, but I would like to address the questions of the number and content of first memories. I think that most persons, including those on the spectrum, have a capacity to retrieve a fairly high number of early childhood remembrances. In a study conducted in the 1940s with young adults, a researcher found that the individuals were able to recall about thirty-five early memories in eighty-five minutes. In another instance, around 1900, G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychology Association, as an adult walked around his neighborhood where he grew up in rural Western Massachusetts. In his meanderings, Hall was able to recall a high number of childhood memories as he retraced the paths in places that he experienced in his youth.
This research is consistent with the experience of Lynne and many of her followers, but the findings refute what I have written on the sparseness of early recollections. How can these positions be reconciled? I believe that the different findings relate to the method of elicitation of early childhood memories. What I focus on are the early recollections that emerge when a person elicits memories as a projective technique. These remembrances are brought to consciousness by specific directions, “Think back to a long time ago…,” and seem to be disconnected from associations that occur when memories are elicited in other ways.
When people are simply prompted to recall early childhood memories, this stimulus often evokes a series of associations. As an example, a person may think about an experience in the house where she grew up and then begin to recall a series of remembrances linked to her home. Cued or directed memories such as recalling experiences in school, family, or other topics, also seem to trigger a high number of remembrances. I realize that attempting to make a distinction between memories prompted as a projective technique and those recalled by other means may seem vague or ambiguous, but I believe that this variable seems to prompt clear differences in the number of remembrances recounted by most people.
Regarding another observation that Lynne and others on the spectrum made to her post, their they related early memories that were sensory-laden and rich in terms of colors, textures, and smells. In my research and therapeutic experience, most people, with the exception of the visual sense, experience only small percentages of sensory-based early recollections. Considering that people on the spectrum frequently encounter sensory processing challenges, is it possible that their early recollections are exceptionally high with respect to sensory engagement? In my next blog, I will report on research findings relating to the senses and early childhood memories.