What is your earliest memory? One of the first ones I have is of my caregiver from crèche holding me in her arms and cradling in the rocking chair because my jaw hurt a lot (I think my teeth were coming out, I don’t know if they were the first ones…).
Dr. Carole Peterson, University Research Professor at the Memorial University’s Faculty of Science, has recently analysed the results of her own research conducted 20 years ago on the earliest childhood memories. Her findings suggest that people are already able to recall events from when they were two and a half years old . In addition, they remember many things from their early childhood that they are not aware of .
Thinking about earliest memories quite often helps our memory to recall more events from that period and it appears that those memories are not just anecdotal episodes to be recounted at family or friends’ gatherings. William Chopik and Robin Edelstein showed that positive childhood memories are associated with better health and well-being in adult life . In other words, the more positive these memories are, the more likely a person is to rate their own physical and mental health positively as an adult. In their research, Chopik and Edelstein examined the perceptions about early caregiving experiences and their influence throughout the lifespan. More specifically they explored associations between these memories and changes in self-rated health, chronic conditions, and depressive symptoms. They found that memories of greater caregiver tenderness in early childhood were associated with better self-rated health and lower depressive symptoms in adults. Interestingly, associations between perceptions of carer support and health status persisted over time.
Importantly it is not only about memories of specific situations, like building a tower of blocks with a parent or caregiver, playing on the slide, or having tea parties with dolls and teddies.
Nora Newcombe, Professor of Psychology at Temple University indicates that each of us has two types of memories: explicit and implicit memory. . Explicit memory is the conscious recall of specific moments, often linked to a specific time and place, e.g. flying a blue kite in the park near the crèche. Implicit memory is an unconscious, often emotional memory that is triggered by specific events, such as the feeling of joy when passing a shop window displaying kites. This type of memory accompanies us from the earliest months of life. German researchers, studying children from the age of 3 months, found that implicit memory appears to be independent of age and characterised by relative stability .
What does this mean for us, adults? It means that we must nurture the quality of children’s experiences from the earliest days, so that their memories – both explicit and implicit – are positive and bring a smile to their faces. It has a huge impact on children!
This blog post was contributed by Kamila Wichrowska (University of Warsaw)
- Peterson, C. (2021). What is your earliest memory? It depends, Memory, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2021.1918174
- Chopik, W. J., & Edelstein, R. S. (2019). Retrospective memories of parental care and health from mid- to late life. Health Psychology, 38(1), 84–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000694
- Vöhringer, I. A., Kolling, T., Graf, F., Poloczek, S., Faßbender, I., Freitag, C., Lamm, B., et al. (2018). The Development of Implicit Memory From Infancy to Childhood: On Average Performance Levels and Interindividual Differences. Child Development, 89(2), 370–382. doi:10.1111/cdev.12749