When most people think about their early childhood memories, they just seem like fairly ordinary experiences that happened to them a long time ago. What is almost unknown about early recollections is that they reveal glimpses into a person's deepest nature and ways of perceiving life. Before individuals are 8 years old they tend to remember only a handful of first memories, and usually the remembrances occur in silence and in black and white. Almost everything in an early recollection matters: what a person is doing, where the experience takes place, the senses expressed, and prominent objects.
In an example of an early recollection, Erin, who is 40 years old, relates the following memory: "I remember when I was little and my mother was combing my hair. She had just given me a bath and allowed me to sit on a soft blue chair in her bedroom. When mama combed my hair, I could feel her soft hands, and she sang a pretty song."
When interpreting this first memory, notable features emerge that are revealing of Erin's personality and way of being. Erin's mother has always been a loving and caring person in her life. Home is where Erin feels most comfortable as a place to find solace and comfort. For Erin, touch is significant in her daily existence. She regularly seeks out touch from people that she knows, and a day without a hug never seems right to her. Erin also finds color to be essential in her life. In her attire, home furnishings, and immediate surroundings, Erin attends to color, and color is mood elevating. Erin loves to have sound in her life. Music, quiet conversations, rain falling on a tin roof, and numerous other aural experiences are highly appealing to Erin.
In contrast with Erin's early memory, Albert Einstein's first remembrance presents a different set of conditions. Einstein recalled as a child being in bed when his father brought him a compass. Einstein immediately becomes engrossed with the operation of the needle of the compass as it relentlessly points to magnetic north. Unlike Erin's memory, almost the whole remembrance centers on the compass as a scientific instrument. In Einstein's life, as an eminent physicist and iconic world figure, much of his time and interest was devoted to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and what captured his curiosity. His memory does not depict a sense of place, color, significant people, or other prominent features beyond the compass.
What early memories seem to serve is a way of understanding what life is like or about. In other words, the remembrances are purposeful and suggest that life is a place of support, caution, curiosity, or other ways of being. They also reveal particular personality features and preferences for sensory modalities. Further, the memories clarify the strengths and capabilities of individuals and aspects of functioning that are challenging. Challenge areas, such as a tendency to withdraw from adversity, become subject to change for a person as they become known by exploring one's early memories.
For over 40 years, I have utilized early recollections in my therapeutic practice and through exchanges in public gatherings. I have also written extensively on the topic of early childhood memories, and continue to give thought to what seems like for most people a common place occurrence from a long time ago.