The other day I was thinking about what I believe is my earliest memory. It’s a difficult thing to do, because typically human memories don’t quite work that way; it’s not as if they are kept in a chronological filing cabinet. Instead, memories seem to be stored in the brain in a way that causes them to be triggered by external phenomena: a song, perhaps, or a situation, or a physical setting might provoke an avalanche of recollection. It’s therefore possible that I have an earliest memory that just hasn’t been triggered yet.
That said, the earliest recollection I can muster involved sitting in a big leather swivel chair, next to my brother Jim, at our Dad’s office when he worked as a bookkeeper for a construction company. I remember sitting on the chair as we swiveled around, looking at a safe with a big combination lock and a handle that was kept in Dad’s office to store the cash receipts. We liked rotating the chair like a merry-go-round and messing with the big lock on the safe. I’m not quite sure why I have this memory–perhaps it was because we had never been to Dad’s office before, and it was interesting to see it–but it is definitely an old one. I’m not sure exactly when Dad worked at the construction company, but the time period would have been in the pre-kindergarten years, perhaps when I was three or four.
A recent study suggests that many people can identify memories dating back to the age of two-and-a-half, and that people also tend to misdate their earliest memories and assign them to later points in their lives. It isn’t clear why two-and-a-half seems to be the cutoff point–perhaps the brain just isn’t ready to begin significant storage before then, or perhaps the things that are happening before that age aren’t specifically memorable–but the authors of the study suggest that if you want to try to remember your earliest memories, you just need to work at it, because summoning up early memories often has a kind of cascading effect. But be careful: studies also suggest that what many people think is their earliest memory is fictional, particularly if it goes back beyond the age of two or so. Those “memories” often aren’t true memories, but instead are descriptions of family photographs or ingrained family stories that have been implanted in the brain over the years.
I’m pretty sure my swivel chair memory is a true memory, and not a later implant, but of course there is no way to know for sure. The “earliest memory” issue does make you realize that your brain is kind of like your grandmother’s attic, with all kind of weird stuff stored up there, and you’re not quite sure why some memories got stashed and others didn’t.