Proust’s taste of a madeleine catapulted him to the memory of a time and place. We all have our madeleine moments. Perhaps, like Proust, the taste of a cake, or of fish and chips, or of a certain flavour of soda drink. Not just tastes though – smells: of a wood fire, or sun lotion, or road tar on a hot day; sounds: a popular song, a bird call, a bat hitting a ball; touch: the feel of canvas, or a blanket, or a dog; sights: the Sun setting over the ocean, a vintage motor bike, a movie.
But beyond these specific memories of time and place triggered by sensations, we also have “memory chains”. A chain can start with a word or a phrase, read or heard. The word triggers memory of a person or place or event, that memory in turn can take us to another event, person, place, which in turn takes us still further, each trigger reaching further back in time in our lives.
But there is a limit to how far back any chain can stretch (rather like the limit on how far we can see out into the universe because beyond a certain point the light simply can’t reach us as the universe expands). We all think we have a memory (or memories if we are very confident) reaching back to the age of 2 or even one year old. But –
“In a survey of more than 6,600 people, published in Psychological Science, researchers found that 40% of people believe they have a first memory from when they were two or even younger, even though evidence suggests it is not possible for memories from this age to be retained. Around three to three-and-a-half seems to be the agreed age of a first memory, although Martin Conway, the study’s co-author and director of the Centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London, has said it’s “not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world”.” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/19/sunflowers-and-santa-claus-guardian-writers-and-readers-on-how-their-first-memory-changed-them?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other)
I suspect even 5 or 6 is probably ambitious. I think what happens is that we remember remembering early memories (perhaps even remember remembering remembering and so on) although we have lost the actual primary memory. I mean, if cells are replaced every 7 years (or whatever the figure is, my memory fails me) then by the time you get to my age all your cells have been replaced 10 times over. Including, I think, brain cells.
And there are other sources of false memory (fake news?) – we are told about things that happened by our family, and this implants their memories into ours. We see, all our lives, photos of when we were young – holding grandmother’s hand at the station, sitting on a horse statue, blowing out birthday candles, dressed in fancy dress – and the memory of those photos also become memories we think we have of the event concerned.
So, my earliest memory? Dunno. It can’t be separated from all the false memories that provide a fuzzy image of my youth. But then, most memories are like that. Even when triggered by a madeleine we think we remember eating.