Ayesha Chari ’24
In College of Human Ecology, Psychology

What was your first childhood memory?

This is one of the questions that was posed to the audience of the virtual Chats in the Stacks book talk held on Nov. 18. The webinar was led by Qi Wang, professor of psychology in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, along with Sami Gülgöz, professor of psychology at Koç University in Istanbul. The talk provided a glimpse of the 2020 book "Remembering and Forgetting Early Childhood," which the pair co-edited. The volume explores the reasons we remember certain events from our childhood yet forget others.

As Wang and Gülgöz explained in their talk, the average age of the first memory is around 42 months, but the age and clarity of the memory varies among individuals. For over a hundred years, psychologists have used the models available to them to explain the phenomenon of childhood amnesia, that is, the scarcity of memories from the first years of life. The theoretical foundations of childhood amnesia stretch back to Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression, and then evolved alongside psychology to include neurological maturation, socialization and cultural differences. Many factors influence an individual’s recollection of their childhood. Women tend to remember a first memory earlier than men, and individuals who grew up in traditionally collectivist cultures tend to have later first memories than those who grew up in individualistic cultures.

montage of pictures of a child playing and the cover of the book "Remembering and Forgetting Early Childhood"

In her book “Remembering and Forgetting Early Childhood,” Qi Wang notes that the average age for a first memory is about 42 months.  (photos: Qi Wang/Provided)


Throughout the talk, Wang and Gülgöz emphasized the fluidity of childhood memory. “Memory is a constructive process,” Wang said, rather than merely a place for storage. This is why, Wang explained, older adults can recall more vivid and more coherent first memories than young adults, why we don’t always recall the same event as our first childhood memory, and why we can often remember events that are important to us many years later.

What can one do in the present to improve a memory of childhood in the future? In the talk, Wang noted emerging research on the influence of family elaborative reminiscing: the process of talking through recent memories with a child and helping the child recount past events in coherent stories. This continuous adult involvement strengthens associations and self-awareness and may lead to better memory retention. Wang and Gülgöz noted that the effectiveness of this process seems particularly strong for children with lower levels of self-development. Wang and Gülgöz also cautioned against labeling having earlier first memories as “good” or “bad,” and noted the need for more multicultural and multilingual representation as the field continues to develop.

"Remembering and Forgetting Early Childhood" was published by Routledge in April 2020 and is currently available to purchase. This talk was a part of Cornell University Library’s Chats in the Stacks, a series of book talks by Cornell authors about their recent work. All Chats in the Stacks for the Fall 2021 semester were held online.