Research indicates that the first memories of most people go back to the three and a half years old, before that time it is produced what is called: “infantile amnesia”. However, more recent studies with children suggest that early memories are probably older, but growing up we forget them and our first experiences date back to six years old.
Tell me what is the culture that you belong to and I’ll tell you what your first memory is
The first memories vary greatly in content: we can remember that toy we liked so much, that time when we broke something or when we moved house. But it is curious how these early memories are deeply influenced by culture.
A very interesting study conducted at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, revealed that Canadian children are more likely to remember their first experiences of play by themselves and the personal transitions, such as they started school or moved house. On the contrary, Chinese children tend rather to remember family and school interactions. Obviously, the environment in which we grow up determines the importance that we give to one or the other experiences, depending on the values promoted by the society in which we live.
Why we remember some experiences and not others?
It is still unclear why some experiences have a special place in our memory, while others are eliminated. But there is no doubt that early childhood memories that have adults relate to events with a strong emotional significance, some are negative events, such as accidents and injuries, others are happy experiences as a day of vacation or an excursion.
In fact, recent studies indicate that our first memories may not be random experiences, but reflect the most significant details of our childhood or even represent a part of us that we want to preserve. Therefore, beyond the emotional impact, because the experience is consolidated and will endure in our memories is critical that has cherence.
This means that an experience will be memorable to the extent that we believe it is important for our lives. For example, a businessman can remember the first time he spoke in front of his class, and an activist for animal’s rights may recall a childhood experience with animals that particularly marked and inspired him.
In reality, those early autobiographical memories are not just due to chance and not merely reflect the path of our lives, but also show what we became. These first memories are not only a reflection of the influence of the cultural and social context in which we grew up, but also indicate the emotional impact that had on us our childhood.
In addition, those memories become the raw material that we use in order to form our identity, our “self.” The person we are depends, at least in part, on the events that have shaped us, on how we have dealt with them, and also on how we choose to remember them, because our memory is not a faithful copy of what has happened, but it constantly reinvents itself.
Therefore, many of the memories of our childhood are actually information that we decided to keep, consciously or unconsciously, because are important to understand who we are and why we are at this point in our lives. Those memories will give a sense to the “ego” that we have built, helping to reorganize the information necessary to reaffirm our identity.
On one hand, those memories are positive because allow us to maintain a certain consistency, but can also become obstacles that prevent us from growing, especially when it comes to traumatic memories. In these cases, we have to remember that we can’t go back and rewrite our childhood, but we can choose which memories we keep. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to eliminate them, but reassess their emotional impact. The past helps us to understand ourselves, but it doesn’t have to define us and, above all, shouldn’t write our future.
Wells, C.; Morrison, C. M. & Conway, M. A. (2014) Adult recollections of childhood memories: What details can be recalled? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology; 67: 1249-1261.
Wang, Q. & Peterson, C. (2014) Your earliest memory may be earlier than you think: Prospective studies of children’s dating of earliest childhood memories.Developmental Psychology; 50: 1680-1686.
Peterson, C. et. Al. (2013) Predicting which childhood memories persist: Contributions of memory characteristics. Developmental Psychology; 50: 439-448.
Batcho, K. I. et. Al. (2011) A retrospective survey of childhood experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies; 12: 531-545.
Demiray, B. & Bluck, S. (2011) The relation of the conceptual self to recent and distant autobiographical memories. Memory; 19: 975-992.
Peterson, C.; Wang, Q. & Hou, Y. (2009) “When I was little”: Childhood recollections in Chinese and European Canadian grade school children. Child Development; 80; 506-518.