October 27th, 2007

What’s your first memory?

I’ve always had an excellent recollection for early events in my life, with the peculiarity that my memories tend to be visual as well as auditory and emotional. That is, not only can I remember a great many incidents occurring at a very young age—what happened, what was said, how I felt—but there’s also a sort of theatrical scene-setting. I can often recall where I was standing in relation to the other players—and, more oddly, what everyone was wearing at the time.

It took me a while to learn that most people don’t remember things that way. I would be reminiscing with a friend and would say, “Don’t you remember? You were standing over there, and you were wearing that black and white suit with the red silk blouse,” and the friend would gaze at me in puzzlement, wondering what I was talking about.

Of course, no independent corroboration exists to tell me whether I’m right or wrong. So perhaps I’m full of it; there’s no way to know for sure.

I once participated in a study of first memories. The researcher’s premise was that our earliest memories are not random and that, in particular, a person’s very first memory has some significance and is a sort of theme.

I have no idea what the results of that research were, or whether the concept is true, but I find it fascinating.

As for my first memory—well, first I’ll offer the following, from commenter sergey, posted a few months ago:

Tolstoy also writes in his authobiographical notes on his rememberance of how he was born—not only all the environment of the room, but also his sensations of the delivery itself. My own first rememberance does not runs so close to the begining, but I do remember very clear how I was weighted after being brought from the clinic to the flat of our family doctor. It was cold being sripped of swaddling bands and put on scales platform, white and cold metal trough, and I was frightened when it begin to rock to and fro under me.

Why am I posting sergey’s first memory? Because it is virtually the same as mine. Although I think mine occurred when I was older, perhaps at ten months or so, I was very surprised indeed when I read his comment. It’s the first memory of another person, one who lives halfway across the world, and yet it represents a fairly accurate rendition of my own first memory.

If so, why this first memory rather than another? The theme in my early life that I think it represents is the idea “you’re on your own, kid”—at least, in the emotional sense.

Feel free to offer your own first memories in the comments section.

30 Responses to “What’s your first memory?”

  1. LabRat Says:

    Mine comes relatively late, when I was coming up on my third birthday. It was the moment when I realized I didn’t need my mother to read a storybook to me because I could now read it by myself. I couldn’t tell you what anything looked like other than the pictures in the book, but I remember the intense sensation of triumph and independence, and running to my mother to show her what I could do and reading the whole thing to her with no mistakes.

    I’m an extremely verbal learner- my thought process usually goes in complete sentences, and it was a long time before *I* realized most people don’t think that way. I’ve often thought that maybe the reason I don’t have any memories before that one is that I didn’t have the complete set of tools I needed to put things into an organized context to make a clear memory until I learned to use words well enough.

    It could be because it was my first taste of independence, something that has always been extremely important to me, though.

  2. Sgt. Mom Says:

    My earliest memory is visual, of sitting on the floor of the apartment in Malibu where my parents lived when my father returned from duty in Korea – I would have been about a year to a year and a half old.
    I was playing with some glass marbles, in front of a picture window looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Nothing important, really – but I can remember quite a lot about the next place where we lived, until I was about three – the married GI student housing at UC Santa Barbara. All my early memories have a particularly intense sense of place – the layout of rooms, and the furniture and other objects in them, and what we could see from the windows. I am told it is very odd for people to retain such clear early memories, but I can draw room plans of these places, and spot where the windows were and things hanging on the walls.

  3. Trimegistus Says:

    Mine is also late — approximately age 3 or 4. And like LabRat, I think it’s connected with learning to read. Before I could read I didn’t have a memory. Certainly I don’t remember anything from that time. It’s all about the words.

  4. sergey Says:

    There is some interesting pattern to early memories I have recognized by questioning a number of people about their’s: the very first are visual, spatial, scenic and emotional, they are associated with the first year of life. After this no memories left until 3-5 years, and these later are of different quality: they are verbal and more abstract, as if they retain not the primary sensory input, but rather a processed assessment of the situation as a whole, its significance, and are much more discriminative. Most of the people have only this second type of memories, as if development of language skills sends a mighty wave of repression wiping out the very first, pre-verbal memories, and prevents formation of raw sensory memories later. The rare edeitic later memories usually are associated with serious psychologically traumatic events, they are like “flashbacks” in PTSD. Maybe, our first memories of the first year of life ARE symptoms of PTSD? And our famous writers and artists who retain these memories in adulthood are in some sense victims of PTSD, and their creative abilities are tools to cope with it?

  5. LTEC Says:

    Stephen J. Gould has an interesting article (which I cannot locate at the moment) about some of his own memories of childhood. The memories were from a much older age than those discussed here, and they were very vivid. And when he went back to the scenes of the memories, he realized that they were FALSE! They could not possibly have happened the way he remembered them.

    Our earliest memories are really memories of memories, and we shouldn’t trust them.

  6. DC Says:

    First memory? There are a few ideas here that are hard to sort out.

    Somehow I knew about breast feeding. I liked to play “mommy and baby” with my older sister and she objected to my attempt to breast feed. I was about two I think and had no younger sibling to observe breast feeding of, so how did I know?

    I remember waiting impatiently to be let out of the crib in the morning and while waiting thinking of my penis as a separate personality who seemed to have some unusual properties.

    I seem to recall that potty training was done in the basement on a special stool. I’ve been reminded by a picture though. Diaper changing was also done down there on an ironing board as well as in the main floor bathroom.

    The earliest distinct memory is at age one to two when I was curious about what would happen if I put my finger in the small crack on the hinge side of a door. This resulted in a trip to the hospital (not remembered). I do recall a family friend holding me in her lap and using one of our nice cloth napkins to soak up the blood. The very top part of the finger was partially severed, but it all seems to be there with some odd scarring.

    Here’s one I can verify in an unusual way: When I was three my siblings watched a magic show on TV, they were five and eight years old. I recall one saying that magic was not real and this was around Christmas time. Soon after, I was curious about the ability of reindeer to fly without wings. I was informed that it was done by magic.

    This led me to question the whole Santa Claus thing. I button holed my mother outside the bathroom. I seem to recall the hallway and bathroom light on. She reluctantly informed that indeed Santa Claus was not real. Perhaps she used the word “pretend” I don’t recall.

    I tried inquiring with others my age about this, but was met with blank stares. I told myself that next year they would be old enough to get it. The next year, I was annoyed because rather than be allowed to play with freshly opened toys, we had to go to church first. Then to add insult to injury, the Sunday school teachers encouraged the kids to tell stories about whether they saw Santa Claus.

    By now of course I thought the kids should be knowing better, but instead they played along with this lie, in Church no less. This was such an outrage! The Sunday school teachers promoting this lie! So I told my own lie. I explained that I knew Santa had visited because he came down the chimney so hard that he created a hole in it. (there was a hole to dump the ashes which could be cleaned out in the basement).

    I got the feeling the teachers knew I was kidding them from their facial expressions. I wanted to remember how old I was when this happened because it seemed important that I knew and the others didn’t. It occurred to me: Christmas wasn’t on Sunday the prior year, but it was this year. Just perhaps in the future there would be a way to figure out what that year was.

    Interestingly, I received almanacs many years for Christmas and over the years had noticed the perpetual Calendar in them. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that checked one to see that my recollection of being four was correct.

  7. jon baker Says:

    As a kid I could remember a point of first conscience. It is hard to describe. Now it is, as someone stated above, a memory of a memory and is no longer clear. I am 37 years old. Even though I was born in 1970, it is possible I have some memory of the Vietnam War. I remember watching the news and hearing of fighting “Guerillas”, thinking at a young age they were speaking of “gorillas”, as in apes. I suspect that was the Vietnam war, or possibly just afterwards.
    I wonder if our memory is like computers. I realize that when you “delete” files, you are only erasing the directory- the data is still there and can be recovered with the right equipment. Of course, there are programs available that clean beyond that level. But are all our memories stored in our head but the directory is simply erased? I have had dreams about places I was at as a child and they were so clear- where was that memory when I was awake?
    Love your site Neo. I wish to apologize that several months ago I said I did not care what happened in the middle east. I do care, especially about Israel. However, I was extremely frustrated and still am, about at our own open borders.

  8. Sam L. Says:

    My first two memories come from about the age of 2 1/2: We’d just arrived at our new house and I remember going up the stairs to the second floor. Some time later, I remember seeing the people in the house across the street sitting on their porch and smoking cigarettes.

  9. strcpy Says:

    Also, some “memories” aren’t really that but just that you have heard a story so many times that you think you remember it. Those can be really hard to discern if they are or not.

    My earliest is in my crib pulling my blanket over my head and it still being light underneath it and I was confused. Then everything goes dark and, once more confused (too young to really get the concept of a light switch). I once asked my mother about some of the details of it and I had to be between 1.5-2.5 years as that was the only period where I lived in that room and had that blanket. I also remembered some smaller details that we correct, specifically a toy my mother had forgotten that I had. Given that all the details were correct (some fairly specific) and I didn’t have most of those items after I turned three or so I figure that one is a “real” memory.

  10. douglas Says:

    “Our earliest memories are really memories of memories, and we shouldn’t trust them.”

    At best. I have vivid memories of dreams… How do I know that some things I take as actual occurrences weren’t actually from dreams? How do I know that they weren’t things I built up from tangential memory later?

    Ask any investigator, and they will tell you about the fallibility and fungibility of memory. Haven’t any of you ever been in an accident, swearing that things happened a certain way, then later realized that it couldn’t have been so? Even that which you believe happened may not have, what then of it’s memory?

    I also think that your physical surroundings, and other temporal landmarks (changing schools, moving) have a large impact on memory. My memory of early childhood is pretty sparse, and I’m only 40. I credit this partly to having lived most of my life in one house and having a very smooth life with few hard markers to deliniate specific ‘eras’ in my life. Made it more difficult to file those memories in an organized, more easily remembered way.

    This is in opposition to my wife who moved internationally at ten years old. Such a solid marker in life made it easier in some ways for her to keep memories, and know when and what they were later.

    I also think that there are so many means of human brains processing information and building a personal universe that memory experiences are surely very different from person to person. My tendency is to synthesize events in my life into the bigger picture of my understanding of the world and move on. Therefore, I suspect, my hold on fixed memories is more tenuous than others whose minds work differently.

    For what it’s worth, my first memory is of the nanny holding me at the front window (or perhaps I was standing, and she was behind me?) as my parents went out. Funny thing is my parents say it doesn’t make much sense with the timeline of my life so…

  11. mrs whatsit Says:

    douglas, I agree that people who moved often in childhood have an easier time recognizing their own memories. My family moved every two or three years throughout my childhood. I have vivid, detailed, colorful memories of the inside and the outside of each place we lived. I could draw room layouts, place the windows and the furniture, and tell you where each neighbor lived and where the trees and flowers and trashcans were in the yards.

    This goes back to my parents’ first home, a graduate-student apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts which they left shortly after I turned two. I can see that place vividly — I could draw you a layout of the rooms, place a lot of the furniture and the windows, and tell you which neighbors lived in which of the other apartments (especially the one where a playmate lived who had the most fascinating and wonderful little green pegboard-desk, that I wanted with all of my heart.)

    These memories, both of place and of experience, are intensely vivid and visual. They don’t come from photographs — we don’t have any of most of these places — and they don’t seem to be false. I’ve checked details with my parents, and they say I have them right. Over the years, I’ve discovered that most people don’t have this kind of detailed memory of the landscape of their earliest childhood — but my brothers do, and of course they were moving a lot, too! We were talking about this just recently, and we decided that having so many different childhood landscapes makes it easier for us to pin our memories down in time.

    As for events, I don’t think I rememer anything from the first year of life the way Neo and Sergey do, but I remember a whole lot from the second year — and most of it does have at least some emotional content. Besides that eminently-desirable little green desk, I remember having a playground spat with a little boy and setting out indignantly to tell his mother (and I still remember his name — what a brat!) I remember waving goodbye to my father from my bedroom window as he left for class. Like Neo, I see what he was wearing, part of what I was wearing (something blue and poufy, maybe a dress with a full skirt?) and I could draw you the yellow-and-black striped car-barrier he was stepping around as he waved to me. I remember having a tantrum in my mother’s narrow little galley kitchen because I wanted to help her bake bread, and she wouldn’t let me.

    But I am not sure about real trauma as a memory-setter. I think it might be more random than that. I don’t have any memory at all of big events from that time. For instance, sometime during that second year, I spent weeks in a hospital in traction with a broken leg. The injury and the separation from my parents had to be highly traumatic, but I know about that experience only from family stories and photographs — I don’t remember a thing about it.

  12. mrs whatsit Says:

    Drat. Wish I could edit that comment to fix the repetition! That’ll teach me to make changes without re-reading before I post.

  13. DC Says:

    Milestones of a four year old–

    Forget to tell how I was able to remember for so many years that I was four when I made the observation that Christmas fell on Sunday. Apparently I became obsessed with remembering special events that took place at that age. I have no similar list for any other age.

    The most important event was starting school. Even then I could see how that could fix my age in my mind with as little confusion as possible.

    Another milestone that year was the move into a bedroom away from the parents and good bye to the crib.

    In the fall of that year we received a unique visit from my old maid great aunt in the autumn. We would see her every year when we visited my grand parents next door to her a days drive away. She enjoyed playing cards with us little ones.

    This last one is the only one that might be a dream. I learned to dismount the monkey bars on the top of our swing set in an extraordinary manner. I shall try to describe this feet of daring which I believe I did without concern for my safety.

    The technique was to squat and hold the rungs of the monkey bars with my hands. (monkey bars are like a ladder which is suspended in the air with its member all parallel to the ground). I would then lean back and let go simultaneously. The result is like doing a half back flip and you land on your feet. I seem to recall doing this in the fall with leaves on the ground when my great aunt was there.

    A few years later I almost attempted this, but was too afraid.

  14. Tap Says:

    One of my first memories is one of intense embarrassment. We lived in Singapore for a year when I was 2 – 3 yrs. old. Our apartment was high in a tall building.

    I don’t remember why, but I remember the feeling of complete outrage as I ran through the lobby and out of the building. I was running away and I would never come back. And then I had made it outside. And I panicked. I didn’t know where to go but I knew I wasn’t going back.

    Well, I had an aunt and uncle who lived in an apartment building across the parking lot?, and even as I ran there I was disgusted with myself for going to a place where I knew I’d be found…but it was way to scary to go anywhere else.

    I remember that when they opened their door to me, I bolted to the nearest piece of furniture that I could fit under to hide, without saying a word. I had my face in the carpet and was trying to ignore their questions, hoping that somehow they would forget or not know? that I was there, as little sense as that makes now.

    Eventually, I slowly rolled over and looked up. There seemed to be a crowd of huge adult faces bent over looking straight at me through the glass top of the coffee table I was hiding under. GLASS? I remember my face feeling SO hot. I was intensely embarrassed to find that I was stupid enough to hide under a glass table. And all of these people looking at me..questioning me..and I knew that I had failed in running away and that made me even more embarrassed.

    I don’t remember a thing about it after that…just the embarassment of that moment. So, mine seems to be all about feelings.

  15. Zhombre Says:

    First memories? Southern California some time between 1952 and 1955. The clarity of the light. The tacky little bungalows that at the time probably sold for a song but now must cost six figures. The gigantic cars with big fins.

  16. DC Says:

    One more unusual memory event-

    This one didn’t make it onto the list of milestones of a four year old because at the time it held little significance. It involves meeting someone and then meeting him again many years later.

    The first day of kindergarten I learned that the boys didn’t play with the girls. This was strange to me because at home my friends were only girls. Within a week or so, there was a new kid at kindergarten. He had a mop of curly hair and was named “Eugene” something or other. By this time, I had learned the culture–man this kid was in for trouble because he was an obvious “sissy”. The hair, the weird sort of girly first name and even the last name sounded sissy, it began with an “S” and had two syllables.

    Well the kid was only around for a day or maybe a week. It was so odd, perhaps he went off to some special sissy school!

    Years later we were in the same junior high classes, but I did not make the connection. It was about the time of the end of high school when I remembered that kid and wondered if possibly I had encountered him. I thought about the one guy I knew with curly hair named “Eugene” and then tried to remember if the last name sounded right. It had to be. So I asked him: Yup. They had just moved to town and there was some bureaucratic screw up that had him going to the wrong school for a few days.

    Here is a recent picture of him in a bow tie, he is balding and there is no sign of the curly hair: http://spaf.cerias.purdue.edu/index.html

    You can read about his meeting with President Clinton here: http://spaf.cerias.purdue.edu/~spaf/usgov/pres.html

  17. Chas S. Clifton Says:

    My memory is of looking at the rabbits that my older sister was raising. They seemed enormous and powerful. As I stood in the sunlight, tall grass was scratching my bare legs.

    Based on where we lived, this must have been right before or right after my second birthday, so the grass was not really all that tall.

  18. Sarah Wright Says:

    The first memory that comes to mind is when I was still sleeping in a baby bed. I was standing, holding on to one side and the end of the bed, looking at the light coming from my parents’ bedroom. It was still dark outside and my parents’ were getting ready for a trip we were taking to visit family in Tennessee. At that time, before the interstate system was highly developed, the trip was a 12-hour affair.

  19. camojack Says:

    “What’s your first memory? “

    Well, since you asked…it was the realization that the urine splashing back on me in the potty chair was warm. No, really!

  20. Terrye Says:

    My first memory was shortly before my third birthday. My father had been in a bad accident at work and I was in his hospital room. I was afraid.

  21. Bugs Says:

    Two or three years old. At the pediatrician’s – to take a blood sample, they had this “game” where you would try to run your finger through a simple maze; when you came to a certain spot, an “alligator” would “bite” your finger – which of course was the lancet poking you. Devious bastards…

  22. Drew Says:

    Hello people!

    My first memory was of my Mom looking down at me, and I felt like she was just the greatest thing I could imagine. I had to be about 12 months or so. The next memory was my older brother (9 years my senior) changing my diaper. I remember my legs we flopping and kicking around and he slapped me on the leg and said something to the effect of. “hold still, damn it!” After that I remember moving to a big house with railroad tracks behind it, and seeing a mousetrap. I talked to my Mom about these later and she said that we moved to that house in about 1955, so I was about 2. My memories pick up again when I was about 4 and I fell with an old style glass jar (the kind with a ring to hold it) and cut my right arm BAD. I was afraid when they put me in the ambulance, and asked them not to turn on the siren… I was four then, and my arm still bears the scar. I will never forget the look of absolute terror on my brother’s face, and my aunt wrapping my arm in a dish towel and squeezing real hard. In the hospital I saw fat bubbles in the wound… I am 54.

  23. Michael J. Totten Says:

    I escaped from my crib and crawled away while my mother said I needed to get back in. I remember not quite understanding what she was saying, though I had a general idea of her point. I was young enough not to understand English just yet.

  24. Mark in Portland Says:

    The first memory I can put a date on is the day of JFK’s assassination. I was 3 1/2. I remember my mom standing in the kitchen and, I thought, laughing. I remember asking her why she was laughing, but she was actually crying. She told me the President had been shot.

  25. lgude Says:

    Having a bath in the bathroom sink. Pretty young to fit. I can remember my mother leaning over me much younger than I usually remember her and the overflow of the sink – 3 vertical slots with rounded ends. 40 years later I managed to go back and visit the house and the sink was still there with its three slots. I remember the slosh of the water in the sink, my mother’s voice, the sense of an end of day ritual. I had left that house when I was 3 and I found I remembered a lot – but often only when I got into an viewing angle close to the original one. There were also heaps of slate waste from a quarry on the property which caused me to understand why I had, as an adult, always had a strong pulling feeling of darkness and mystery whenever I saw exposed broken slate. (Now I know when get that uncanny feeling that some memory may be being triggered.) During the course of that day of rediscovery I recalled sitting between my father and my uncle in a flathead Ford pickup and going the the grain mill in a town about 20 miles away. I remembered the name of the town and went and inquired of a pharmacist there who was about my own age. He said there were two such mills in those days and that one was gone and one still there. Mine was still there just as I remembered it. These memories don’t fade on me even though I am 65.

  26. Vanna White Says:

    Hello…Man i just love your blog, keep the cool posts comin..holy Saturday . Vanna White

  27. Peteris Says:

    I came to this blog after googling to find out more about strange flashback I experienced today.
    I’m 37. My first memories are from age 3-4, as usual. But today, in the middle of conversation about immunity and my thoughts about how important breastfeeding is for immunity of a child, I had a detailed and absolutely overwhelming flashback about how I was breastfed myself… My nose bumping against white, warm and soft flesh, sound of my mother’s voice, warm milk flowing into my mouth, movements of my jaws, sweet smell, cozy position, feeling of happiness…
    After the flashback I wasn’t able to talk to others for couple of minutes, tears flowing from my eyes. The feeling was genuine like a nightmare is just after the awakening, but, of course, no one can tell was it a real memory or a wake dream.
    BTW, I was so surprised afetwards to see that this blog uses the same WP theme as I use in Latvia… GMTA. But my blog is more satyrical than personal. Best wishes, America! Bush gave you an unique opportunity to have just one direction to go — upwards :) Sorry for mixing subjects.

  28. MyFirstMemory.org Says:

    Great post and comments – check out , which is basically a compendium of first memories…

  29. Cheryl Ewers Says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot, lately. Recently, I attended my nephew’s third birthday, and just casually muttering, “I remember my third birthday…” and my mother-in-law said, “Really?” and I said, “Yes, I remember my second birthday, too. I was walking in the table, there were balloons, and my aunt and cousin were there. I didn’t like them too much and I remember wishing they weren’t at my party.” We laughed. Well, a few months later, I was looking at a photo album at my mother’s home. I come across that very birthday…and there I am, walking on the table (and I remember feeling the flatness of my shoes as the most significant physical factor)…and I look at the date…and it’s actually a year earlier than I’d thought. It was, in fact, my first birthday. Then the same thing happened on the next page…but it wasn’t the date; it was the obviousness of my being less than one year old. It appears to have been my first Christmas, judging by the decor, and anyway I certainly remember a certain gift being unwrapped: it was a plastic saxaphone…and I remember being so eager to play with it and then grabbing it and blowing on it and pressing the big plastic keys. Well, here I am in this photo…a little dumpling wrapped around this big toy, but with the cutest, most sincere hand positioning on this instrument, and the “reed” in my mouth. I was, then, ten months old, and I think that’s the earliest of my clear memories. I couldn’t understand what people were saying, but remember feeling that people were getting a big kick out of seeing me play this thing. And, you know, these early memories of feeling fear, delight, and even being self-conscious have helped me understand that kindness must be administered to all creatures; that we should not “use” them for the “bettering” of our human lives because it’s highly likely there is a sense of self in each of these creatures. So I adopted a vegan lifestyle as my expression of love for all levels of cognizance.

  30. norman denney Says:

    My first memory was from about the age of two. There was a rare heavey Georgia snowstorm that had filled our front yard with about four or five inches of snow. My grandmother took me outside dressed so thickly that I could barely walk. She placed plastic bread bags over my shoes. They were held up by rubber bands. She held my hand as I enjoyed the smell and sound of the snow crunching beneath my feet. So wonderfull. My father had an early CB base station and the tall tower cast a shadow across the snow and I tried to step on it, too young to understand why I could not make it bend. Her grandfather, she later told me, had been shot in the back during the Civil War and had been given morphine for the pain and had become addicted to the drug. This may sound odd, but she had memories of walking across his yard as the empty glass morphine ampules crunched beneath her feet as a child. To this day I think about that when I hear the crunch of snow. A few years before she died in 1980 when I was about 14, the local TV weather began giving the wind chill factor. One day I was at her house and she was watching the TV weather forcast and she got upset. I asked her why. “It’s that windshield factory! You would think instead of bragging about how much colder it was inside that place than outside, they’d get them poor workers some heat!” Perhaps I should have corrected her but I never did. Somehow I think it would have been wrong.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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