Early Childhood Memories: Endure or Drift Away?
How stable are early recollections and why does it matter?
Posted Jun 08, 2017
Recently, I asked a friend, who is now 89-years-old, to recall an early recollection. In the memory, Bill Brown related that at the age of four or five, following the orders of his mother, he tried to break the ice on the back stairs of his house. Bill's mother provided him with a small screw driver for the task, which he found to be inadequate and frustrating. After recounting the remembrance, Bill said, "I cannot remember not having the memory." I then asked Bill, "Has the memory changed over the years? He quickly replied, "I don't think the memory has changed one iota. It is precisely the same; no change whatsoever."
Bill's responses relating to one of his early recollections raises a broader point about how stable or consistent are first memories for people in general? In an attempt to address this question, Ruthellen Josselson, a faculty member at The Fielding Institute and psychology professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, asked 22 college seniors to recall two early memories. Josselson then asked the women to relate their first remembrances three times over a 22-year period. The study focused on the stability and change of early memories over a lengthy time frame.
For the majority of the participants, Josselson found that their early childhood memories showed many aspects of consistency, with very subtle changes over time. In particular, thematic material in the remembrances was especially consistent. The themes emphasized the main idea or central message of each memory. Josselson thought that an individual's personality develops around the theme of an early childhood recollection. In this regard, a memory serves as an organizing and defining framework which reflects the uniqueness and constancy of a person's character.
Although it is interesting that early recollections may be relatively stable, why does this matter? One response to this question is that for an individual ingrained convictions reflected in first memories are influential in constructing views on the nature of life. For some persons, life is perceived as bountiful and hopeful, and for others life is viewed as fearful and despairing. Yet,even though a person's outlook may be adverse, a level of stability is far more adaptive than if one's fundamental beliefs constantly shifted. More broadly speaking, if all people changed their outlook on life repeatedly, human relationships would be chaotic and social contracts unsustainable.
At the same time, a person's outlook on life is subject to change under certain conditions. With insight into one's nature and ingrained convictions, a shift in perspectives is possible. In the case of Bill, he is aware that his industriousness can be taken too far, and he has developed more of an ability to let some things go for another day. For an individual with a self-defeating outlook on life, perspective change is challenging and therapeutic support may be needed. Although a person's early recollections tend to remain relatively stable, purposeful and constructive action is possible in spite of the emotional tug from the remembrances.
Josselson, R. (2000). Stability and change in early memories over 22 years: Themes, variations, and cadenzas. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 64, 462-481.