“The Past beats inside me like a second heart ” John Banville, The Sea
What are your earliest childhood memories? Studies on this topic vary, but the general consensus is that the earliest valid memories are from about the age of three. Some people claim to remember events before that age. Others can’t remember anything before the age of seven. Does that matter? Not really, according to the experts.
It seems that what actually matters is the quality of the experience that you remember. This is significant because it lays the basis of your self identity , helping to shape you as the person you are today. The adult you, reflected in the mirror of your childhood . Sometimes the memories can be embellished with hindsight, but the general principles remain the same.
Why those particular Childhood Memories?
A number of factors combine to anchor certain early childhood memories into your consciousness. These include the significance of the event, the emotions involved and your ability at that stage to process the relevant information. It appears that language development plays an important role in this ability because it helps us make sense of the event. Krystine Batcho Ph.D, in an article in Pschology Today, comments on why understanding an event is an important factor in childhood memory.
“The coherence of a memory contributes to its’ longevity in memory. The more it is understood in a meaningful way, the more likely it will become incorporated into the permanent repertoire of our adult life” Krystine Batcho Ph.D
First Day at School
Reflecting on on my own childhood memories, the above statement makes perfect sense.
Like many people, my first day at school is seared into my memory, like a still from a film. Rows of faded pictures and strings of counting spools on the wall. The smell of tea in jars, a sickly sweetness that permeated the classroom air. Nervous twittering from my fellow classmates as they plonked themselves down on the old, wooden desks. The dark blue stains that appeared on my hands when I inadvertently touched the sunken inkwell. Was I in trouble now?
I certainly understood what was going on. The overall emotion though was angst, rather than excitement, but that was probably just a reflection of the times ( Ireland 1960’s ). Nevertheless, it certainly had an effect on me and probably contributed to my overall anxiety. I’m sure that many others of my era share a similar memory. The irony is that it spurred me on to become a teacher, someone who could have a positive influence on children. So you can see the important, though perhaps underestimated, role of childhood memory in life choices.
Our Cognitive Birthday
Bill Briggs, in a NBC news article, describes our earliest memory as our cognitive birthday.
” One lone moment has been selected and stamped on our brains as the first day our life experience became worthy of mentally filing away and cataloguing. In a sense, it is our cognitive birthday. ” Bill Briggs
It is the first marked date on our own, personal calendar of consciousness and self-identity. Mentally stretching back through the years, I discovered my own cognitive birthday, no candles or cakes, but very significant nonetheless.
My first memory is remarkably clear. Even though the event might seem insignificant now, it was obviously highly important to me at the time. It follows the normal patterns associated with dawning cognitive awareness because it is linked to social and emotional development. First childhood memories associated with toys are also quite common.
I was perched on Aunt Rosamund’s lap in the dining room at home in Bushy Park, aged about three. She was opening a special book that she had chosen for me, a cloth book. Nestled in her arms, I turned each page slowly, enjoying its’ soft, textured sensations. Patiently, Aunt Rosamund helped my little hands master the tasks in the book. On the first page, she showed me how to place the big, blue button into the skinny buttonhole. Then she helped me tie the long, stringy, black laces and connect that naughty, argumentative hook and eye. There were more pages, I’m sure, but those are the ones that are cemented in my brain.
I remember it all so vividly and I feel as lucky as a Lotto winner to have this as my first memory, a memory full of wonder and love. It has helped cushion me against those ” those slings and arrows ” of life that we all must face sometimes.
The memory calendar of life is completely unique for each individual human being and lays the foundation for our sense of self identity. Our distinct experiences and the manner in which we remember them define who we are. But , without a structured and accessible memory, the events lose their significance for us.
We could think of memory as our own personal autobiography, with an index and pages we can check on as often as we like. We can use them to make sense of new experiences, to more easily integrate them into our sense of self. But when the index gets blurred and we can’t easily access certain pages, it is then that we run into problems.
“Autobiographical memory allows us reflect, plan for the future and understand we are in the present. It is this loss that leads to a loss of sense of self in Alzheimer’s patients. ” Jason Murugesu
Childhood Memories Made Me
As an adult, I have no doubt that my early childhood memories played a significant role in defining who I am today. They also influenced my strong interest in creativity.
I still remember the old , dusty parasols and long, black crinoline dresses in the attic of my childhood home. They were such fun to dress up in, but definitely gave me an appreciation of history ( And maybe fashion !). There was an abundance of antique items, like tiny silver thimbles, which fascinated me too. I could stare for hours at the old, well-loved paintings hanging on the wall, imagining the story behind each picture. Or lose myself in a novel, secreted away in a quiet corner of the house.
Sometimes, I’d wander outside to sample the just-ripe plums, or play in the freshly cut hay which tickled my nose. There were always animals to be cared for too, like the tiny chirping chicks that arrived in boxes from the train and needed plenty of attention. Once they grew up , there was the added delight of searching for their warm, smooth eggs in the straw. The hen house was one of my favourite spots on the farm.
All these memories, and many more besides, have helped shape me into who I am today. A lover of art, literature, history and nature. Someone who likes solitude at times, but also the company of kindness. I am still that little girl, sitting on Aunt Rosamund’s lap and wanting to explore the world. I wonder if she would approve of my Cavewoman project?
Photograph my own, click on it to enlarge.
Or view on flickr