Empathy

Empathy Is Key to Understanding the First Memories of Life

Grasping the meaning of early recollections from multiple empathy perspectives.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

Image by M. Maggs, from Pixabay
Old Telephone
Source: Image by M. Maggs, from Pixabay

Understanding a person's early memories is a challenging task. At the same time, the use of empathy in grasping the meaning of an early recollection is particularly helpful. As a human endowment, we have a capacity to empathically understand another person through insights gained from the first memories of life. By engaging multiple empathy perspectives—subjective, interpersonal, and objective—it is possible to connect with an individual through a memory formed a long time ago.

As an example, Mia, a home health care worker in her early 40s, recounted an early memory: " I was four or five years old, and my father called and said that he would take me to the carnival. I was so excited and put on a pretty yellow dress. Then I sat in a chair and looked out the window to the street below. After a long time, the telephone rang again, and I heard my parents arguing. Soon my mother came in and told me that my father was not coming, and I could not go to the carnival."

In response to a question about further details in her memory, Mia stated, "When my mother said that I was not going, the room seemed to grow dark." Mia related that the most important part of the memory was "being told my father was not coming." At that point, she felt "intense sadness. It was like a knife in my gut."

From a subjective or internal perspective, most people are able to identify with having been disappointed or let down by another person. The hurt may not have been exactly like Mia's experience, but it is sufficiently similar to emotionally evoke an identification response. Visualizing Mia gazing out of the window as she patiently waits for her father readily comes to mind through the imagination. The telephone ringing and Mia's intense look of dejection is another imaginative image that emerges quickly. 

Knowing that Mia recalls this particular memory as an adult prompts an intuitive reaction relating to the enduring influence of the remembrance in her life. When hearing Mia conclude her recollection with, "like a knife in my gut," a tinge might strike one's stomach. Beyond the felt physical reactions, another embodied response involves mutual neural pathways when listening to a first memory.  The activation of mirror neurons triggers outside of an individual's awareness in response to Mia's narration of her early recollection.

Interpersonal and objective empathic perspectives also contribute to understanding first memories. In my next post, I will detail how both modalities blend with subjective empathy in clarifying the meaning of an individual's early recollections. Empathy enables a person to momentarily experience what life is like for another person by facilitating a mutual connection to an event from a long time ago.