Writers of a romantic persuasion believe that as old age progresses our memories increasingly emigrate from a grey present to a remote sunlit past. If we are romantic extremists, like Wordsworth, we treasure our earliest impressions like award-winning box-sets of DVDs for constant replay because they are far brighter and more significant than anything that could come after:
“Trailing clouds of glory do we come ……….
………Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison house begin to close
About the growing Boy (or, more p-correctly, Person)
More moderate romantics think of old age as a time in which we become obsessed by memory archaeology, trying to interpret our lives by understanding how the past has shaped us and how we feel about this. I am unconvinced that this is either a common or a comfortable predicament. My earliest memories are much duller than my cheerful present (the most persistent are of mediocre jam sandwiches). Also, the key thing about early memories is that they are so sparse. This is not because infants cannot remember anything from day to day. Parents are charmed that their toddlers recognize objects, animals and people weeks after a single encounter. Formal experiments endorse this but also show that while infants remember enough from day to day to navigate their simple lives and to gradually learn about the world few adults can remember any people, things or events that they experienced before they were 18 to 25 months old. It would be interesting to find evidence that very early memories gradually began to re-surface in old age but they don’t seem to do this.
Freud believed that our memories of earliest childhood are rare and bland because we edit out all the threatening stuff. Are there more objective tests than psychoanalytic conversations to discover whether dire things that we can’t recall lurk in the dark of the mind to pounce suddenly upon our lives?
This is a topical theme because of agonized confrontations between adults who claim to have “recovered” repressed memories of parental abuse, often under psychotherapy, and their distraught families who deny this possibility. The distinguished forensic memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, believes that nearly all legal claims of recovered memory collapse under rigorous investigation 2 It is hard to design experiments to test this but laboratory studies do give some information.
A logical issue is whether painful memories are “repressed” so that they remain recorded in the brain but we are unaware of them or whether we can remember unpleasant incidents if we want to but just do not choose to go there. All of 429 adults, of whom 19.8% had been sexually abused, 11.5% emotionally abused and 14.9% physically abused said that they could remember even very painful incidents but that they deliberately and consciously avoided doing this.3 This is no support for Freud’s idea that memories associated with sexual abuse are especially hard to recall or that being abused as a child, in any way, makes it harder to recall other neutral or pleasant childhood memories. So, some memories of very painful happenings can be recovered but it is much harder to prove that no others are “repressed”. For instance of 129 women who had been sexual victims in childhood 38%, when questioned, claimed not to remember abuse that they had experienced 17 years earlier but that had been documented at that time 4
A different question is whether trauma in childhood affects all mental abilities, including memory, in later life. A small study found that 21 survivors of childhood sexual abuse scored lower on tests of logical reasoning and of short-term memory than 20 non-abused controls did.5 There is also evidence that stress in early life can cause brain changes that affect later competence. Many studies show that rats stressed when they are young experience changes in the hippocampus and frontal cortex and learn less rapidly when they mature. The stressed rats also show changes in corticosteroid and neurotransmitter function and are less engaged in social play with other animals 6,7.
Whether our earliest memories are stressful, neutral or pleasant do they become more or less plentiful, or happy or disturbing as we grow old? Lynn McInnes 8 asked several hundred elderly volunteers to date their earliest memories, whether any of them were associated with any particular emotions and how vivid they now seem. Their current ages, between 54 and 83 years, made no difference to the numbers of events they remembered, from how early in life they were dated, how vivid they now were or to when, and how often, they were now recalled. Most of these memories seemed to resemble static images, snapshots rather than DVD replays. They dated, on average age, from 3.6 years with a range from 2 to 8, and this was not affected by the age at which they were recalled. Most were unexciting impressions of places, people, animals or objects. Few were emotionally charged. Other studies have found that women have earlier first memories than men, and explain this by pointing out that little girls learn language earlier and talk more with their families about their experiences than little boys do. Mary Mullen 9 asked 768 people to tell her the numbers, dates and kinds of their earliest memories. Like other investigators she found that women reported more and earlier memories than men. Eldest children, of both sexes, also reported more, and slightly earlier memories than their younger brothers and sisters. Mullen suggests that this could be because parents tend to talk more with their first children than with those who arrive later into a busier household; also that parents, particularly mothers, tend to talk more to their daughters than to their sons. She also suggests that women may report earlier memories because they earlier gain words to describe and retrieve them and this allows them sooner and more frequent involvement in a family saga of incidents that are often collaboratively recalled, discussed, edited and dated.
In Lynn’s study 8 both men and women recalled the same numbers and kinds of things in much the same ways and from similar ages. The only difference was that those who produced the earliest first memories also had significantly higher scores on two tests of fluid intelligence that they had taken in their old age.
One explanation is that clever old people were also clever infants, earlier alert to life and recording more of what was going on around them. Clever and intellectually curious infants may earlier begin to explore their memories and have language to discuss them with others. It is uncanny to realise that our memories are so greatly edited and altered during frequent recall and discussion that they are in effect, not fading records of original experiences but re-worked memories of memories, much-edited and patched together by collaboration with others. Their importance to us is often not their literal accuracy but their meaning as defined by our personal myths. Our interpretations of our lives can only be based on our memories and so, it seems, by the subtle impressions passed on to us that determine what experiences we remember, how we later recall them, how we evaluate them and how we spin them to explain our lives to ourselves.
An example of this process is a comparison of childhood memories of Caucasian Americans and Chinese Americans.10 Chinese earliest memories were, on average, from about 6 months older. Caucasian mothers and children constructed elaborate joint memories continually adding additional details and building on each-others’ recollections, and strongly focusing on the child’s personal reactions to events. Chinese mothers interpreted much less, added less detail and opinion and focused on any moral principles and guides to appropriate behavior that might be illustrated. In accordance with this editing Chinese early memories were sparser in detail, played down personal feelings, were more modest, less judgmental and less self-centered. Chinese adults tended to remember and describe their own actions neutrally in terms of their personal roles in the social contexts in which the incidents had occurred.11 The only evidence that we have and use to interpret our lives and ourselves is the information about ourselves that is incorporated in our memories, but the adults among whom we were brought up have selected, edited, shaped and annotated these memories and so plotted the stories that we make of our worlds and our lives.
I bear no grudge against my affable family because I remember little about my infancy other than unremarkable jam sandwiches. These were quite OK, had no coded meaning whatever and, I am sure, have never polluted my consciousness or my view of myself or of the world. If Philip Larkin had shared my sandwiches he could never have written
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They do not mean to, but they do…….”
Or any of the scores of wonderful poems in which he distills the insipid essence of his very English Depression that a very different Anglo-Indian childhood has spared me.
- Freud, S. (1901). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (trans. A. Brill) Unwin, London.
- Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K. (1996). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. St. Martin’s Griffin, London.
- Melchert, T. P., & Parker, R. L. (1997). Different forms of childhood abuse and memory. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21, 125-135.
- Williams, L.M. (1997). Recall of childhood trauma. A prospective study of women’s memories of sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167-1176.
- Bremner, J.D., Randall, P. Scott, T.M. et al (1995). Deficits in short-term memory in adult survivors of childhood abuse Psychiatry Research, 59, 97-107.
- Meaney, M. J., Aitken, D. H., Van Berkel, C., Bhatnagar, S., & Sapolsky, R. M. (1988). Effect of neonatal handling on age-related impairments associated with the hippocampus. Science, 239(4841), 766-768.
- Meaney, M. J., & Stewart, J. (1981). Neonatal androgens influence the social play of prepubescent rats. Hormones and behavior, 15 197-213.
- Rabbitt, P., & McInnis, L. (1988). Do clever old people have earlier and richer first memories?. Psychology and aging, 3, 338.
- Mullen, M. K. (1994). Earliest recollections of childhood: A demographic analysis. Cognition, 52, 55-79.
- Wang, Q. (2004). The emergence of cultural self-constructs: autobiographical memory and self-description in European American and Chinese children. Developmental psychology, 40, 3.
- Wang, Q. (2001). Culture effects on adults’ earliest childhood recollection and self-description: implications for the relation between memory and the self. .Journal of personality and social psychology, 81, 220.