Early Recollections Are More About the Future Than the Past

Thinking Back to Look Ahead in the First Memories of Life

Posted Jun 01, 2018

          A mistake that can easily be made is to fail to distinguish an early recollection from other memories recalled from the first years of life. An early recollection as a projective technique is rendered by an individual when asked, "Think back to a long time ago when you were little, and try to recall one of your earliest memories, one of the first things that you can remember."

          The remembrance comes to mind from a handful of experiences that emerge into consciousness over the course of the lifespan; providing glimpses into how a person construes life.  The memory functions as a lesson learned in preparation for the future.  The core message takes the form of caution, inspiration, withdrawal, hope or various other ways of making sense of what life is like or about.

          In contrast, other memories from the first seven years of life may be important, but they do not enter the enduring realm of early recollections that are elicited as a projection.  As an example, in a conversation an adult readily recalls numerous events from her early days in elementary school.  Although these cued or associated memories suggest how she experienced her first years of school, they do not broadly reflect the individual's outlook on life.

          In a more extended example, Patrick, a retired school counselor, related the following early recollection.  "I was about 4 years-old, and was playing in the backyard with my mother and father nearby.  It was a warm and sunny day. I picked a buttercup flower and eagerly ran to give it to my mother.  She was so happy when I gave it to her.  I was excited and happy." 

          If Patrick's memory is understood as a historical event, it suggests a sensitive and loving expression of a mother and child interaction.  The memory also indicates a caring relationship at the time of the experience. However, if Patrick's remembrance is interpreted as a projective technique, the memory reflects his optimistic outlook on life and an expectation of positive events. Patrick is fully engaged in the recollection and his degree of activity in daily events is elevated.  Patrick's sense of belonging with others is strong in terms of social interest, with a kinship with other living beings.

The past matters, but so does what the past forecasts for the future.