Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/May 1898/Earliest Recollections

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IN 1895 we published in a number of reviews and addressed to individuals a series of questions relative to the tenacity and distinctness of visual and auditive impressions, and to the earliest recollections of childhood. We have received one hundred and twenty-three answers to them, a larger number than we had anticipated, of which seventy-five came from Russia (obtained largely through the courtesy of Prof. A. Wedensky, of the University of St. Petersburg), thirty-five from France, seven from England, and six from America. Of them, further, thirty-five were from women and eighty-eight from men; seventy-seven from persons between sixteen and twenty-five years old; thirty from those between twenty-five and thirty-five years old, and sixteen from persons of between thirty-six and sixty-five years. Nearly all the respondents were teachers or pupils, and some were lawyers, some doctors, and two ministers.

In examining the answers we found it difficult to classify them fully and draw absolute general results from them. We proceeded thus: Each of us read the responses separately, and took note of the general ideas that seemed to be elicited from them; then one of us wrote in a general table in detail the principal points in each answer, and this done, the other underlined the points in the answers that seemed most important. The questions relative to visual and auditive images did not elicit any new results. Most of the persons answered that they had clear visual and weaker auditive images; a small number (thirteen) had better auditive than visual images; and there were persons who, using visual memory, were better able to represent forms, others colors; some, with auditive memory, pieces of music, and others words. We asked these questions in order to learn whether there was not some relation between the nature of the predominant images held in the eye or ear and the first recollections.

To the questions concerning earliest recollections, one hundred of our respondents had some recollection from infancy which seemed to be first; twenty had two or three recollections of infancy separated by days, weeks, or months, but could not give their chronological order; and three had no special recollection which they could indicate as earliest or as from a certain age. They could recall a series of facts, generally without chronological order. The age to which they referred these facts—five, six, or seven years—was quite advanced, and considerably greater than that given by other persons—two or three years—for their earliest recollections.

The date of the first recollection varies between very broad limits. There are persons who can recall a fact or scene which took place when they were one year old, or even less; others can not recollect anything from before they were six, seven, or even eight years old; but in general the first recollection corresponds with an age of from two to four years. One professed to have recollections from the age of six months, two from eight months, four from one year, nine from a year and a half, twenty-three from two years, twenty from two and a half years, nineteen from three years, fourteen from three and a half years, twelve from four years, six from five years, five from six years, two from seven years, and four from eight years.

In an inquiry made by C. Miles[1] on like subjects, we find two questions relative to the earliest recollections of infancy. The author concludes that the average date is about three years, but the figures are not given in detail. The questions are suggested first whether there may not be some essential difference in the nature of recollections that correspond with different ages, and then whether there is not some special cause that may explain why one person recollects a fact of his first year and another one only of his fifth year. We have not enough answers or any sufficiently detailed for the complete treatment of these questions. We proceed now to give our own conclusions.

The prime difference between recollections going back to the first year and those which relate to five or six years of age is that the former are all of events which greatly affected the child, and were frequently recalled to him in his infancy and youth; the latter are likewise facts that struck the imagination of the child, but generally less than the former; and there are cases in which the latter recollections were called up late in life; in two persons they were not evoked till our questions brought them up. One person, for instance, recalled the following scene: "A large room, with a fire on the hearth, and the ceiling and walls in the dark; an aged lady sitting before the fire, which shines brightly upon her. I am sitting in her lap. On the floor is a toy, a sheep with gilded horns. I have on red stockings, and have hold of the woman's nose. It is a large, flabby nose; the woman's face is wrinkled, her hair is white, and she wears spectacles" This was when the subject was eight or nine months old. One evening, when this person was six years old and his parents were sitting round the fire, he came up and of his own accord enacted the scene described above, and told the story, when they all laughed. Since then he has recalled the incident many times.

Another person recollects when lie walked for the first time. He knows lie was less than a year and a half old. He represents himself as walking from one lady to another, holding on to a chair, and very much pleased with his exploit.

A third person writes us: "When I was weaned, I for several days asked for ma nini, or sucking-bottle, and they told me that a dog had carried it off. So when I saw a dog I would say, 'The tou-tou has carried off ma nini'. This was when I was fourteen months old" The fact was often mentioned to him.

Among other recollections of early age we find one of a painful disorder of the eyes, one of a surgical operation, and one of setting out in a boat on the Aisne (at a spot to which the person returned frequently during his childhood).

Among the examples of recollections relating to five or six years of age is this: "I see again the class of little ones in the primary school which I had just entered; the master, a gentleman whose eye-glasses impressed me very much, was standing at his desk, ruler in hand, and accosted the person who was with me. During this time I stood up and looked at the wall covered with colored pictures and maps, at the blackboard, and the pupils' benches. I was then about six years old. Your list of questions was the occasion of my calling up this recollection" Another, while writing his answer, recalls a vision of his nurse, who loved him, sitting in the kitchen sewing. The subjects of other "delayed" recollections were a lunatic who was greatly frightened by the war of 1870, a fire, the death of the respondent's father, which caused a change in his life, and entering school.

A very clear difference is noticeable between the persons whose earliest recollection relates to the age of about one year, and those in whom it corresponds to five or six years. The former have many memories of an age of which the latter have none—that is, the date of the first recollection is in relation with the date of others. A person who recalls an event that happened when he was one year old, remembers also a number of events of two or three years of age, and is able to recall the current of his life after the age of five or six years. On the other hand, a person whose first recollection dates from the age of five years, begins to have several from six or seven years of age, and remembers the current of his life from eight, nine, or ten years. It would be interesting to collect facts concerning the infancy of these several persons and see if there is not some marked difference in them.

The opinion most generally current concerning the subject of the earliest recollections of infancy is that of Taine: "The primitive impression was accompanied by an extraordinary degree of attention, either because it was horrible or delightful, or because it was entirely novel, surprising, and out of relation with the habitual current of our life; this is what we express when we say we were very forcibly struck by it, were absorbed in it, could not think of anything else, our other sensations were effaced by it, we were pursued by the image continuing all through the next day, we were possessed by it, could not get rid of it, and all distractions were powerless as against it."

It is because of this disproportion that the impressions of infancy are so persistent; the mind being entirely new, ordinary objects and events are surprising to it,[2] According to Taine, the chief cause of the reproduction of an image is attention. "Whether attention be voluntary or involuntary, it always operates in the same way; the image of an object or an event is the more capable of revival or of complete resurrection in proportion as the object or event has been considered with greater attention" Taine's theory is applicable to the large majority of cases. Most of the earliest recollections relate to events which have attracted the child's attention by their intensity, their novelty, their action on the affections, or by numerous repetitions—facts, especially, which have evoked strong feelings—fear, terror, shame, lively joy, pain, grief, curiosity, self-love, antipathy, sympathy, etc. The first recollection, however, in some persons relates to a merely common fact, not particularly distinct from others, and which did not provoke any strong feeling, which is remembered with details; while important events which produced an impression on the child at the same period, as the parents relate, are not remembered at all. Such cases are few, and we can not explain them. It may be, as one of the subjects suggested, that the fact remembered only seems banal because it is not completely recollected, the striking elements having been forgotten.

Most of the earliest recollections relate to brief scenes. The impressive fact is generally clearly remembered to the minutest details, but it was only of an instant's or a few minutes' duration. An event of an hour or more is rarely remembered, or, if it is, there are gaps in the recollection.

As to the kind of mental images that constitute the recollection, the scene in the majority of cases is represented visually. The things, the colors, and the character of the light appear very clearly, but the personages are poorly set forth. The general form is seen, but few or no details of the figure, and sometimes it is not determined whether it is a man or a woman. Occasionally, however, the persons are clearly distinguishable, especially when they play an important part in the event that is recollected, as in the following example: "My father was holding me at the window of the ground floor in which we resided, and, balancing me now to the right and now to the left, he made me play hide and seek with one of his friends, whose hairy, laughing face I still remember. This memory goes back to an age when I could hardly walk, and could not speak—when I was about two years old" A professor's recollection is of a garden planted with flowers and vegetables, inclosed by a hedge with a green wooden gate. "The image of the garden is floating and vague, like the recollection, except that the gate is retained in my memory with a really surprising precision of details. I see it now, with its leather hinges, nailed to a rough post, and slimy with the moisture; and I see hanging to that gate a rude boy, the terror of the children of his age, who clung there with tense legs and clinched hands, all doubled up, with a grinning face and his eyes glowing with mischief through the intervals of the bushy red hair that fell over them—a cynically grotesque figure. A cracking was heard, and all the urchins ran away like a flock of frightened sparrows, this one in the lead shouting shrilly and ironically. All the details of this scene have remained very precise in memory, and yet I can not say that I recollect the mocking cries of this youngster. I do not hear them now. I was then sixteen or eighteen months old; not more than two years at most" We transcribe this example in full because it illustrates the usually indefinite character of auditive recollections. Some persons recall them more distinctly, and some can remember words that were spoken, but not by the sound. A few persons who have analyzed their remembrances subsequent to the earliest—of seven, ten, or fifteen years of age—observe that auditive memory comes later than visual.

We have the same affirmation in a large number of responses of the manner in which the subject himself is represented. He sees himself as a child, but does not feel himself a child. He has a picture in which there is a child, and knows that he is the child. "I see myself in the view as somebody outside of me" "I am at the seashore and my mother is holding me in her arms. The picture appears to me as if I was away from the scene" Many of the answers describe the feature thus.

Other sorts of perceptions rarely make part of the earliest recollection. Only three persons speak of the pain of an operation. Taine cites a fact of this kind. "M. Brierre de Boismont, having had a scalp disease when a child, declares that he still feels the pulling of the hair in the treatment of his skull" One example occurs among the answers we received: "I had the croup when I was twelve months old, and it was necessary to burn all the ulcers in my throat. I have a very clear visual image of the scene; I see distinctly four persons holding me down. What I see most clearly is a glowing brazier in which two red-hot irons were being heated to a white heat; and to this moment I still seem to feel that burning iron coming to my lips."

There is still one other group of images—the emotional ones. Our inquiry confirms the results obtained by M. Ribot on the remembrance of the feelings.[3] Some persons who know that they had a particular emotion do not feel it, but can only describe it. Others, on the other hand, still feel the emotion they had when a child. "My first recollection," says one, "was the astonishment I felt one morning at seeing the roofs without snow upon them. I thought they must be white all the year round, and I conceive now very clearly my surprise when I found that they were not. I was then three or four years old" "My first recollection" says another, "is of the birth of a sister. We received the news by letter, and I remember the details clearly. My father read the letter aloud, and I was very much struck with the name given my little sister—Hortense—it sounded queer. Every time I recall this memory, I witness the scene precisely in all its details, but that name, Hortense, especially, resounds in my ear, and I conceive a kind of echo of the singular impression it made on me. I was exactly two years eight months and a half old"

Our inquiry did not include the accuracy of these impressions, but several of our correspondents voluntarily communicated their verifications of them. One had frequent recollections of a modern balcony extending from the first floor of a country house, protected by a wooden balustrade, coming more commonly in dreams than when awake, and which he was not able to connect with anything real. When about fifteen or sixteen years of age, he passed through a village which his parents had left when he was two years old, and which he had never seen afterward. Everything was strange to him till he came to the balcony of his dreams. He asked what house that was, and found that it was the one his parents had lived in. Another person, who had left his natal village when three years old, returning to it when twenty, recognized the place and the former house of his parents.

In another case, where the recollection proved not quite exact, the subject remembered the death of his father as having occurred in a certain room, but learned afterward that that was not the room in which his father actually died, but one they had moved into afterward.

It was not possible in any of the cases in which the point was mentioned to fix the time of the incident recollected, except it was related to other events, the date of which was learned afterward. Thus, a scene is remembered that took place in a certain house; it subsequently appears that the parents left that house when the subject was three years old, and the conclusion is drawn that the event occurred before that age. It also seems impossible to fix the date relatively, or, in other words, of several events recollected, to determine the order in which they happened. Thus, M. Binet furnishes a list of twelve events remembered which took place when he was perhaps less than six years of age, most of which acted on the emotions, and which he believes are remembered because of the feeling they excited. He remarks that the memories form complete detailed visual pictures, in which he sees the persons and their positions, and even trifling things like the stones in the wall in one of them. But he is not able to fix their order, or to say this one happened before that one, except in the case of three, which he has localized in time without knowing how.

The answers are unanimous concerning the conditions under which these recollections of infancy come to mind. They are recalled when we are thinking of our childhood, or of the places where we lived in childhood, or when we meet the names of persons who were concerned with us at that period, or when we see a thing or a scene similar to one which formed a part of the event recollected. In some persons the event is recalled by an emotional condition like the one we felt when it happened—in all these cases by some form of association by resemblance or contiguity.

In most persons a considerable interval exists between the first and second recollections; it is generally more than a year; in some cases it reaches five years; and in a few instances it is only a month or two, in which cases the subject does not know which is first or second. After the first, many isolated facts and scenes are usually remembered, but not in any known chronological order, and without connection with one another. Usually our connected recollections and power to recall our life in chronological order begin at the more advanced age of between seven and eleven years; and with many persons the period coincides with some change in the life, such as a removal of residence, entry into the lyceum, or something of the kind.

The characteristics of the posterior recollections are the same as those of the earlier ones—emotional, visual, presenting themselves as complete pictures with many secondary details, and corresponding to events of short duration; while auditive images are rare, but less so than in the earliest recollection.

Concerning recollections in dreams, we find that few persons see themselves as children in dreams, and when they do the subject of the dream is of a time posterior to the earliest recollection.

The results of our investigation, one of the first to have been made, so far as we know, are far from complete, and give no definite information concerning the why of the phenomena; but they indicate some of the points concerning which the inquiry can be pursued with profit, and will enable us to frame our next set of questions more systematically and with more intelligence. We shall be glad to receive observations on the subject from all persons who may choose to communicate them to M. V. Henri, Laboratory of Physiological Psychology, Sorbonne, Paris.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from L'Année Psychologique.

  1. C. Miles. A Study of Individual Psychology. American Journal of Psychology, vi, p. 565.
  2. Intelligence, i, p. 35.
  3. M. Ribot. Psychologie des Sentiments. Chapter headed Remembrance of the Emotions.