Thursday, 3 March 2011

Imagined Youth

One of the earliest memories I have is of a picnic with my mum and dad, eating strips of ham in a white ornate viewing tower in Czechoslovakia. As my sister wasn't born at this stage, I must have been younger than three and a half years-old. As the years have passed, I have started to question whether I actually remember this or have merely seen a photograph of the scene prompting me to think I remember the moment.

A slightly later memory I have is of my leg getting stuck to some splintered wood in the adventure playground at primary school and the teacher suddenly and violently ripping my knee away. Another equally unpleasant memory I've often confidently recalled and regularly planned on querying was the nightmare moment a thread of loose rubber on my yellow wellington boots got sucked into the escalator, terrifyingly almost sucking me into its jaws.

Up until two days ago, I had always unquestioningly accepted this moment as fact but two days ago my shoe lace was almost eaten by a London escalator. The moment this happened, I thought back to my wellington story and wondered how plausible it actually was. Minutes later on the phone to my parents, I discovered neither of them actually recalled my terror.

Now both categorised as “Senior Citizens”, my parents will readily admit their memories aren't as good as they once were and my mum is often confusing my likes/dislikes for other people's. Perhaps the hungry escalator moment is set in history or perhaps it is merely part of an imagined past – I guess I'll never know.

Psychologists believe our earliest memories will extend no further back than our third Birthday and we are likely to only have four/five memories between the ages of three and seven so if I chomped on ham at the age of three, perhaps the memory I carry is real. The inability to remember the majority of our early lives is called Childhood Amnesia. As early as 1899, Mr Freud coined the term when explaining why his adult patients carried so few memories. Freud believed people wiped earlier memories as a means of blocking traumatic urges from the time – the unconscious drives of the ID. Freud also claimed that to protect the conscious ego people create “screen memories” or revised versions of events.

For a long time it was believed that the memory-making parts of the brain were too underdeveloped before the age of three but scientists have since discovered that babies as young as three months old can carry long-term memories but many of these memories will only be retained for a maximum of three years.

It is possible that our earliest memories are blocked from our consciousness because at the time we didn't have the language skills to describe the moment. Being able to verbalise memories helps us to create a past. The way parents verbally recall memories with their children also contributes to the forming of a child's “autobiographical memory”, in turn helping them to describe their own memories. The scientists Loftus & Pickrell, Wade, Garry and Read & Lindsay have all suggested that repeatedly thinking about “false childhood descriptions” or reviewing family photo albums can also cause people to remember experiences that never happened.

Possibly falling after my third Birthday, I'll never know for sure whether I truly remember eating that ham or just recall seeing the photograph. As for the escalator monster, perhaps I was afraid of using escalators and invented the story to justify this fear – after all I've seen plenty of howling children being dragged onto escalators by exhausted rather embarrassed parents. These days I'm pretty grateful to see a fully functioning escalator and feelings of dread are more likely to surface when I see a long stretch of stairs – especially in the heat of the busy underground!

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