Do you remember?

We need a little discipline for this week’s question. Before you read another word pause and think of your very earliest memories. It might be sitting in a room when something relatively dramatic occurred, or really something quite minor which struck your attention at the time. It will probably have a visual content such as the room you were in. Think about it, try and place your age, then read on.

You’ll find it hard to beat my first example: it comes from the day I was born. I was sitting in my Granny’s house eating my tea when the telephone rang. It was to tell us that I had just been born. The picture is clear in my mind – down to the details of Granny’s room. So I have been forced to reconstruct. As it happens my brother is two years older than me, to the day. So I think that in reality he had been sent to tea with Granny next door when the call was made. I was later told the story and somehow exchanged myself for my brother. It is relevant that in later years I was often in my Granny’s house, which was next door.

Another example may actually be true. I am standing in the back garden and I ask my father about the house being built next door. I asked him about the wooden planks, and he tells me they are part of the roof and will be covered with tiles. I am impressed with the thought. My checks tell me that I was under three years old.

An interesting study, published many years ago, asked people where they were when they first heard that Kennedy was assassinated. They were able to identify the very room. But checking with the family showed in many cases that this was not so. A serious study published this July showed that some 40 percent of people had faulty memories of these early events. Middle aged and old people were most likely to experience this. Current research claims that memories cannot be formed before the age of three and it was suggested that the apparent infant memories were formed by connecting several different incidents – such as a pram, to which we mentally attach a favourite toy or some such.

So have a good look at your early memories and consider whether they are really true. You may find that your relatives or older friends can remember the situation and can confirm or correct them. And then tell us.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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7 Responses to Do you remember?

  1. milliganp says:

    My earliest memory is a memory of a memory. When I was 6 or 7 I remember recalling sitting at a long table eating a sausage and sleeping in a bunk bed in a dormitory. The incident recalled would have happened when I was under 3. When I tried to talk to my mother about it she told me I was being silly and said “we don’t talk about that time”. As a child I had a recurrent nightmare about giant walking trees which attack in the dark.
    I knew that we had once lived in a place called Newington Lodge before my parents moved into a council flat when I was 3. The subject remained a forbidden topic.
    Fast forward nearly 60 years and I’m in therapy for a ‘nervous breakdown’; my therapist is Jungian and so early memories are part of the therapy. I looked up Newington Lodge on the internet and found it was a Victorian workhouse which was re-purposed as a homeless hostel in post-war London. I also discovered it was a location used in ‘Cathy Come Home’ – it is the last institution in which Cathy lives before she moves onto the street and has her children taken from her. The accommodation is bunk beds in dormitories and meals are eaten on long tables in a communal eating area.
    My mother died 10 years ago and a few years later I finally had the courage to raise the matter with an aunt. She told me I had been very unhappy and had frequent nightmares because of the darkness and trees which rattled on the windows.
    To me it seems to join up but we’re told we don’t remember anything before 3.

  2. Barrie Machin says:

    What a delightful topic!
    One’s memorie are the lovely things that the older you become you get to treasure more and more.
    Pinpointing events in my life is easier because at age 3 I started at a nursery school and I clearly remember my early encounters from that time. My futile attempts at mathematics – counting the number of pencils in my teachers hand – and needlework – attempting to make a purse – disasters!
    At home I was even less successful. Being questioned early one morning about the water I had poured into a tea caddy I said I was making a pudding. With other helpful attempts around the house I was even less successful. As fast as the paper hanger working in our lounge was putting wallpaper ON I followed behind him with one of his tools scraping it OFF. I can even clearly recall the expletive that the paper hanger yelled at me and my efforts – quite unrepeatable here!

    I was the first grandchild in the family and my maternal grandma proudly introduced me one day to a friend saying ‘This is my grandson’. Some days later my paternal grandma took me with her to the library and as she was busy getting books I spotted the ‘friend’ I had recently met and to remind her of our meeting I boldly went up to her and said ‘I’m my grandson !’

    I quite expect this memory topic will become quite full of memories in no time at all and I really look forward to reading all the early recollectioma.

  3. John Thomas says:

    I have two memories of significant (to me, at the time) events that took place in a house I left (1953) when I was under three (born: Jan 1951), and, early in the new house, 1954, 5, 6?, another memory. Also, one (of the later ones, I think) was related to becoming convinced that I had existed before I was “placed with” my parents (I don’t mean adoption, I was not adoped), and (part of this) existing somewhere else in the universe! Later, I thought this was silly. Later still, I have been inclined to connect this with my belief that we are all part of an eternal existence, and God “puts us into” a time/place, as he sees fit (an eternity to which we will return, once this life is over – I’ve written about this on my website; some religious people might conceivably see things this way also, others will just think it daft). Call it an early ‘intimation of immortality’.

  4. pnyikos says:

    It seems that it really helps to have one’s home changed early in life to be able to have early memories. I have a great many memories from Salzburg, Austria, where I was born and where I lived until a little over three years old. My first memory was of reaching up to the wall above my crib and grabbing a picture there. When I recounted this to my mother twenty years later, she told me I was only six months old at the time, and the picture was a reproduction of a Hummel painting of a little girl.

    My most remarkable memory from that time is one for which I needed no corroboration from others. It was of looking at a grate on the ground at the entrance to the house where we lived. [Many years later, I figured out that this was for scraping mud off one’s shoes.] Suddenly the grate seemed to rise up off the ground to waist level. I could pass my hand through the image.

    For many years thereafter, this was the only experience like this. Then, at about the age of 20, I learned that if one looked at two copies of the same picture cross-eyed, it would seem to move towards one. I tried it out on a repeating wallpaper pattern in one of ;our rooms, and it did seem to move towards me. And so I knew that this had been an authentic memory — except that I did not try to pass my hand through it. That had to wait until I was in my late forties, when I once again lived in a house with a repeating wallpaper pattern, and this time I succeeded in passing my hand through the image while maintaining the illusion.

    This recollection is my basis for my certainty that, for all the changes in my body, I am still the same conscious “self” [or “mind,” as Descartes put it] that I was when I was three years old. This is one source of hope that I have a soul that will continue in existence after I die.

  5. Quentin says:

    By coincidence, a study has just been published (using mice) which tells us that ‘place’ memories in the hippocampus are separate from the ‘event’ memories. This might explain why we may attribute a place to a memory incorrectly. You can’t say this column is not up to date!
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180726162738.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Ftop_news%2Ftop_science+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Top+Science+News%29

    • pnyikos says:

      This study does not apply to my experience. My memories are primarily visual, and my recollections of Salzburg events are associated with visual images that clearly identify the location. The grate I wrote about is an excellent example. Until I returned to Europe in adulthood [we left when I was not yet four] I never saw a grate like that again.

      Also, I tend to be suspicious about claims that such and such a sensation/experience is associated with such and such a bodily site. For decades the conventional wisdom was that we had only four kinds of taste buds specializing in four tastes, and that the ones for sweet were in the front half of the tongue, the ones for salt on the sides, and the ones for sour and bitter were progressively further back. That conventional wisdom has been completely overthrown.,

  6. milliganp says:

    I’ve just spent quite a lot of time with my 2 year old grandson; his childminder is on holiday so I’ve been helping out. As we drive from my house to the places we visit or back to his mum he calls out, as well as the usual “bus”, “train” “lorry”, “Shopping” when we pass Sainsbury’s and “swimming” when we pass the pool.
    He now knows our house as “Grandma’s house” and recognises when we are approaching in the car.
    Yesterday I took him out to a museum instead of bringing him home, as I put him in the car to return he said “Grandma’s house” and when he realised from the route I was driving that I was taking him back to mum, he kept calling “Grandma’s house”!
    It’s amazing to think that few, if any, of these detailed events will persist in his memory as they are so much of his world today. Perhaps the places rather than the events. For me, the memories will be precious till my memory starts to fail.

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