110 ^ Part II The Psychoanalytic-Social Perspective First Memories
A person's style of life, according to Adler, is established by the age of 4 or 5. In this, he agreed with Freud about the importance of early experience in determining personality. A key to identifying the style of life is a person's first memoiy, which on the average dates back to age 5lA (Mullen, 1994). Few people can remember events before age 3, and for many people, nothing is remembered until 6 or 7 years of age. Early memories are often erroneous, and adults seem to confuse what they truly remember with what they have later been told about the past (Eacott & Crawley, 1998). Events that occur veiy early in life are not recalled years later, even if they could be reported a few weeks later (as in one study of a fire alarm at a preschool), presumably because of changes in cognitive processing (Pillemer, Picariello, & Pruett, 1994), or the self-concept (Howe & Courage, 1993), or perhaps because the hippocampus, in the brain, has not matured sufficiently to allow permanent memories to be developed (Nadel & Zola-Morgan, 1984). Researchers can assess memoiy by watching whether children interact with objects differently, having interacted with them in the past, than when the object is first experienced. If the behavior has changed—for example, by making movements toward a part of a play object that in the past produced interesting events when manipulated—there is memory. Using this method, researchers report that even at age 1 and 2 years, children remember events of their lives for weeks and even months. This memoiy, though, is not in the form that older children and adults can manage, narrative stories expressed in words, so it is not generally accessible to adult recall (Bauer, 1996). As researchers develop a better understanding of memoiy systems, expanding what they already know about the distinction between memory about events (episodic memoiy) and memoiy that is more closely tied to language (semantic memory), we appreciate that childhood memories are selective (Wheeler, Stuss, & Tulving, 1997).
The first memoiy sticks out because a person has thought about it repeatedly over the years, and it captures what has been subjectively important for that person. The key to the importance of this early memoiy is not the objective facts recalled but rather the psychological importance of the early memoiy for the individual. Researchers suggest that early memories are influenced by talking with adults about the events. This occurs more often for firstborns and for girls, which makes their first memories earlier (Mullen, 1994).
Maiy Mullen also reports that Caucasians report earlier average memories than Asians, interpreting this difference as a result of the greater emphasis on individuality in Western than in Asian culture. Research supports this cultural difference more directly by asking 4- and 6-year-old boys and girls in China, Korea, and the United States to tell about their lives. Compared to the two Asian countries, U.S. children more often mentioned themselves and their feelings in these recollections (Han, Leichtman, & Wang, 1998).
Adler regarded patients' reports of incredibly early events, such as memories of their own birth or maternal care in early infancy, as factually suspect but psychologically revealing. Adler himself reported an erroneous early memoiy. He recalled, as a child, running back and forth across a cemeteiy to overcome his fear of death. The memoiy must have been inaccurate since there was no cemeteiy in the place he described. Nonetheless, the false memoiy is an important clue to Adler's own consistent efforts to overcome death (Bruhn, 1992a; Monte, 1980).
Adler said that a person's "memories represent his 'Story of My Life': a stoiy he repeats to himself to warn him or comfort him, to keep him concentrated on his goal, and to prepare him by means of past experiences, so that he will meet the future with an already tested style of action" (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 351). Memories are thus a key to one's style of life. Memories of accidents may suggest a lifestyle based on avoiding danger. Memories of one's mother may suggest issues concerned with her care or lack of it. Memories of the first day at school may suggest "the great impression produced by new situations" (p. 354).
Adler said he would always include questions about first memories in a personality analysis. People are willing to report them because they don't realize how much they disclose to a psychologist. Any early memories, even if they are not the very first memories, provide valuable clues to a person's unique style of life. Early memories are routinely assessed in Adlerian counseling and are useful with clients of all ages, including the elderly (Sweeny & Myers, 1986). The Early Memories Procedure (Bruhn, 1990) asks systematic questions about early memories and interprets these as clues to a person's current life attitudes. By briefly stating the essential structure of the memory, its meaning for one's current life becomes apparent (Bruhn, 1992a). For example, early school memories are interpreted as attitudes toward achievement and independence. A memory of running away from playmates after falling off the jungle gym is restated more generally: "When I encounter difficulties with an achievement task ... I withdraw" (Bruhn, 1992b, p. 327). Psychiatric patients (all males) who had committed felonies reported more early memories of abuse and aggression than did nondangerous psychiatric patients. Those who recalled early psychological abuse were almost fourteen times more likely to be in the dangerous group than in the nondangerous group (Tobey & Bruhn, 1992).
Early memories reflect our basic and ongoing emotional schemas. Early memories are significantly related to vocational interest and vocational choice (Elliott, Amerikaner, & Swank, 1987), to delinquency (Davidow & Bruhn, 1990) and criminality (Hankoff, 1987), and to depression (Acklin, Sauer, Alexander, & Dugoni, 1989; Allers, White, & Horn-buckle, 1990). Correlations with various clinical scales—including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Symptom Checklist 90-Revised—confirm the hypothesis that early memories express "relationship paradigms" and thus can reflect adjustment or maladjustment (Acklin, Bibb, Boyer, & Jain, 1991).
Was this article helpful?
It seems like you hear it all the time from nearly every one you know I'm SO stressed out!? Pressures abound in this world today. Those pressures cause stress and anxiety, and often we are ill-equipped to deal with those stressors that trigger anxiety and other feelings that can make us sick. Literally, sick.