On the Matter of Earliest Memories

Great Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci once recollected a childhood memory from the first year of his life. From the Codex Atlanticus,

“It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the kite [a bird], for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a kite came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips.”[1]

He would indeed occupy himself with this type of birds, designing flying machines resembling the animal. But generally, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts reject the possibility of having truthful memories before age three or four. Neuroscience explains this by major brain developments around that age, thereby erasing (access to) earlier memories. There’s a name for it, childhood amnesia. As a consequence, anyone claiming to have such earlier memories, especially those from the first months of one’s life, will either be branded ‘crazy’, accused of having adopted falsified memories or confusing a fake memory with some other psychological cause. Adopting the latter stance, Freud would explain away Da Vinci’s early memory as a sort of mother complex.

One psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, takes a different approach. First of all, she finds it convenient that we cannot (or may not) remember our earliest memories, for this could serve a society bent on protecting its parental authority figures well. If children cannot remember traumatizing experiences from their early lives, followed up by the belief that such maltreatment, therefore, would not impact their adult development, then why push to blame parents for not having been good parents? It’s easier to say hush-hush and forget.

On the other hand, Miller notes in her many books that people themselves may also fear their early memories, frightened of what dark secrets may lie there. Most people feel it is in their own best interest to forgive and forget, but not to face the past.

Research by Carole Peterson, a Ph.D. expert on early memories, shows there is little evidence that people can actively remember events before the age of three. One thing I find lacking in Peterson’s research, though, is the possibility of passive remembering, as opposed to actively going through “the archives” looking for a specific event to remember. Passive remembering means taking a walk along the beach and being confronted with memories you did not choose to remember. This is a very different function from actively trying to remember what you had for dinner last night. Moreover, passive remembering can dish up memories you wouldn’t be able to get back again at a later time—or in other words: you would forget those passive memories right away again unless you consciously took note.

Like Da Vinci and many others, I too claim to remember some events from my first year of childhood. However, I cannot play back the movie of my life and have a look there when I was still a few months old. These memories are not “in the archives”. In fact, I remember very, very little of my first year, except for a few short bursts of memories, representing hardly a few seconds of duration each. But like Da Vinci’s kite bird, they were meaningful and somewhat scary events, where I felt I needed to act in my own interests.

Is it possible that certain events, potentially dangerous events, might trigger a heightened sense of awareness in very young children so that these events end up being stored in their brain differently? If so, that would also explain why many other children, those that did not experience such events, would have no recollection from their first years of life at all. And even if that’s not the case, still I would argue some bright minds have the capacity for remembering flashes of very early memories.

The bottom line is: we should not discard our earliest memories, but cherish them like Da Vinci did, even if the scientific world contests they can be real. For now.

[1]Leonardo Da Vinci, Bestiarium, 1st ed. ( ’s-Hertogenbosch: Voltaire, 2007), sec. Afterword.

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