Before exploring your first memory, make sure you’ve read the disclaimer.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
When clients aren’t sure how to begin the psychotherapy process, I will sometimes ask them about their first memory. What they share often provides me with astonishing (not to mention time-efficient) insights into their most formative experiences. The brain holds onto the information that it needs. This data informs how we make our way through the world and how we see ourselves in relation to others.
While many people have what Freud coined “childhood amnesia,” or the inability to recall our earliest experiences, others can recount vivid scenes from when they were three years old (but anything younger than that is quite rare). The degree to which people can access early memories depends on a variety of factors. For some, trauma might be a main cause of amnesia; painful experiences are repressed or relegated to the unconscious realm. Others might have had parents who didn’t ask them a lot of elaborative (open-ended) questions about their day in order to help their brain remember. Studies have also shown that the durability of early memories can be culture-dependent.
Find Your First Memory
Regardless of how far back one’s memories reach, everybody can access their first memory, whether they were six or sixteen at the time of its encoding. In other words, however far back you can remember: that’s your first memory. Some people need only a few seconds to pinpoint theirs. If you, on the other hand, need more guidance, first ask yourself if you can remember anything about elementary school. Use this as a starting point and either move forward or backward in time until you land on something that feels like your earliest recollection. Make sure this memory is truly your own and not the result of being told the same story repeatedly or seeing the same family photos.
Deciphering between authentic memories and those that are more externally constructed can be tricky, but trust your gut on this one. People can usually sense on an intuitive level which recollections are their brain’s own creation. Furthermore, less authentic memories are often characterized by people seeing themselves from the outside, as opposed to seeing a scene from their own perspective. Another aspect of false memories is that they lack any element of emotion.
Take a Look Around
Once you’ve found your first memory (or something that feels as close as you’re going to get), let yourself explore. However, if such exploration feels dangerous because your memory is traumatic, please pause here. Consider seeking the assistance of a professional counselor. You don’t have to do this kind of work alone, and in some cases it’s best that you don’t.
If continuing this journey solo feels safe, it might help to close your eyes so you can really hone in on the details. Are you alone in this memory, or are other people involved? Are you indoors or outside? What sensory elements are at play? What is the emotional tone of your memory? How were you feeling at the time of the experience’s unfolding, and how do you feel now, looking back on it?
You might consider writing your first memory down or drawing the scene on paper and seeing what other nuances become clear. You might also play with perspective. For instance, what would this memory look like in the eyes of an objective observer? If your memory involves your younger self experiencing painful emotions, you might rewrite history and bring a nurturer into the scene who says or does something that would have made all the difference.
Make Some Connections
Give yourself ample time to explore your first memory in whatever way suits you. Then ask yourself this question: What does this recollection say about me? In other words, how does it reflect what I believe about myself and others? How does it inform my view of the world as an essentially safe or unsafe place? Are the key emotions in the dream still playing a significant role in my life? Perhaps you don’t see how any of it plays much of a role at all. If this is the case, consider sharing your memory with a trusted friend or family member and ask them what they think. Their perspective might surprise you!
This week I asked a couple of friends to share their first memories with me. One of them, Anna, recalled being sick and resisting the medicine her mother kept offering. Finally her mother broke a capsule in two and sprinkled its contents on my friend’s ice cream. Anna felt betrayed (her ice cream was ruined!) and became very upset. So in this memory, we have the themes of illness (something Anna dealt with a lot as a child and would deserve close, careful attention in therapy), authority, resistance, and betrayal. Perhaps this experience was the first of many in which Anna refused to accept what would make her feel better, what was good for her. There’s a lot to work with there.
Another friend, Bryan, described his parents fighting in the kitchen and sending him to his bedroom. This forced seclusion and the continuation of his parents’ screaming exacerbated Bryan’s already intense anger. For some reason there was a bowl of tomatoes in his room (it was a gardening household), and he threw every last one of them at his bedroom door. The smashing sound they made upon contact surprised him, as did the color contrast of the tomato guts against the white paint. He felt satisfied and frightened at the same time. This experience definitely reflects Bryan’s current relationship with anger and a pattern of feeling shut out of intense relational dynamics, powerless to effect any real change.
Anna and Bryan’s memories both involve parents, but not every first memory will. Some, like mine, don’t involve anyone else at all (except a fuzzy caterpillar). But studies show that the majority of first memories do involve family life, and they are often quite colorful and vivid. Whatever yours looks like, exploring it and other early recollections is a worthy endeavor. Chances are you’ll see yourself in a bigger context, uncover some hidden patterns, reconnect with your own story, and deepen your self-compassion.
Please leave any questions or comments below.
Batcho, K. (2015). What your oldest memories reveal about you. Psychology Today.
Nelson, B. (1982, December 7). Why are earliest memories so fragmentary and elusive? The New York Times, Science.
Shellenbarger, S. (2014, April 7). The power of the earliest memories. The Wall Street Journal, Work & Family.
Stern, V. (2014). What’s your first memory? Scientific American Mind, Cognition.
Winerman, L. (2005). The culture of memory. American Psychological Association, 36(8), 56.