[NOTE: I came across this old post of mine the other day, and thought it might be fun to repeat it, with some added thoughts.]
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 quite some time 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.
That may have been my first memory; it’s pre-verbal. There are no words because I didn’t have them yet. But my first memory that involves thinking—and it’s a pretty big thought, actually—took place in the bathroom when I was about two. I was sitting on the john, probably being toilet-trained, and my mother was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for me. It suddenly struck me that we were two different people, a thought both scary and fascinating, perhaps even exhilarating.
I remarked to her in awe: “You’re you and I’m me.” Come to think of it, it’s another extension of that same theme mentioned above: “you’re on your own, kid.”
Feel free to offer your own first memories in the comments section.