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Verified by Psychology Today

Early Recollections and the Five Senses

How and Why Sense Modalities Matter in Early Childhood Memories

When individuals bring to mind early recollections, the presence of the visual sense dominates in comparison to the other sensory expressions. Visualizing a scene in a remembrance from a distance of 5 to 7 feet away, people typically evoke an image of themselves engaged in some type of activity. Interestingly, most first memories are nonverbal and devoid of sound; they are like watching a silent movie that typically lasts for a minute or so. For many people, their pictorial memories are prominent and distinct. With a visual orientation to life, these individuals tend to “think” in pictures and have active imaginations. Visual activities, such as watching television and movies, using a computer, and texting are especially alluring to the “visually-minded.” At times, however, these digital age pursuits may be overly engaged while other sensory modalities become less utilized.

Early recollections involving sound occur in a small percentage of remembrances, perhaps 1 out of 20. Individuals who perceive sound in a first memory, such as listening to people talk or hearing the noise of an engine, are typically drawn to aural experiences in their lives. With an orientation to sound, acoustic activities like participating in conversations and listening to music are energizing and relaxing. These individuals often savor favorite tunes on an iPod or other electronic devices. Many “hearing-minded” individuals auditorialize or talk to themselves during solitary tasks. In another direction, hearing random sounds during the day, such as rain falling on a tin roof, chapel bell chimes, or the soft babbles of a baby, are emotionally uplifting and mood elevating. In contrast, harsh tones can be jarring or clashing and evoke moments of distress.

The sense of touch is present in about 1 out of 10 early recollections. Such experiences as being caressed or feeling a tingly cold on one’s face are examples of comforting touch in early childhood remembrances. The occurrence of touch may also be adverse in first memories, such as being struck by another person or laying in a bed in a cold drafty room. Individuals who relate more positive encounters with touch in their early recollections tend to gravitate towards a desire to touch and to be touched. In contrast, those with adverse touch in their early recollections may be especially sensitive to touch which they perceive to be gratuitous or invasive. For those with an orientation to touch, seeking out touch with people whom they know more intimately is a pleasurable experience. Frequent hugs are particularly desirable to the touch-minded person and touching smooth or textured objects is often alluring. In other instances, such individuals prefer clothing and bed sheets which provide soft and soothing sensations in contact with the skin.

Experiencing smell in an early recollection is rare, occurring in about 2 percent of the remembrances. Odor-related experiences in first memories involve various stimuli, such as smelling flowers and fresh-cut grass. The occurrence of smell in an individual’s early recollections often evokes a sensitivity to odors that frequently finds expression in olfactory pursuits. Perfumes, sprays, burning wood, and random wafts of natural fragrances frequently enrich the life of a person with an orientation to smell. In this regard, a smell-minded person typically finds pleasant smells to be life-enhancing and mood elevating. At the same time, foul and stale odors are distressing or even nauseating to persons who encounter smell in their early recollections. People who are smell-minded often build experiences with smell into their lives through a collection of perfumes and odor-defusing devices in their homes or automobiles. Additionally, they may seek out natural and earthy fragrances, which are readily found in flowers and herbs.

The experience of taste occurs in about 2 out of 100 early recollections. Given the thousands of times that individuals consume food in their first years of life, memories of eating and tasting would seem to be far more prevalent in the remembrances. Early recollections, however, are purposeful for providing a sense of what life is like or about, and taste memories may be dispensable in formulating these perspectives on life. Yet, when individuals evoke taste remembrances, gustatory experiences often assume a special quality. Taste-minded persons enjoy exploring a cornucopia of food and drinks, and they typically enjoy cooking and preparing various foods. There is an appreciation and a relish of foods and flavors that is more intense in comparison to what other people experience that do not have taste memories.

There are instances in which individuals experience several sensory experiences in their early recollections. For instance, a person may have first memories involving vision, hearing, and touch. With multiple orientations to various senses, such persons frequently find sensory engagements to be evocative and stimulating. In this regard, the sense expressions provide intensity to experiences that can be captivating or possibly distracting.

People with an orientation to particular senses serve to remind us all how an attunement to sensory experiences contributes to vitality in living and an appreciation of our sensory endowments. How we experience the senses in early recollections relates to the uniqueness of individuals and their capacity for revealing glimpses into human nature.