by federica artioli
When I was a child I was shown a picture, a kind of moving picture inasmuch as it was created before your eyes and while the artist was telling the story of it. This story was told, every time, in the same words.
In a little round house with a round window and a little triangular garden in front there lived a man.
Not far from the house there was a pond with a lot of fish in it.
One night the man was woken up by a terrible noise, and set out in the dark to find the cause of it. He took the road to the pond. Here the story-teller began to draw, as upon a map of the movements of an army, a plan of the roads taken by the man.
He first ran to the South. Here he stumbled over a big stone in the middle of the road, and a little farther he fell into a ditch, got up, fell into a ditch, got up, fell into a third ditch and got out of that.
Then he saw that he had been mistaken, and ran back to the North. But here again the noise seemed to him to come from the South, and he again ran back there He first stumbled over a big stone in the middle of the road, then a little later he fell into a ditch, got up, fell into another ditch, got up, fell into a third ditch, and got out of that.
He now distinctly hear that the noise came from the end of the pond. He rushed to the place, and say that a big leakage had been made in the dam, and the water was running out with all the fish in it. He set to work and stopped the hole, and only when this had been done did he go back to bed.
When now the next morning the man looked out of his little round window,thus the take was finished, as dramatically as possible, what did he see?
I am glad that I have been told this story and I shall remember it in the hour of need. The man in the story was cruelly deceived, and had obstacles put in his way. He must have thought: “What ups and downs! What a run of bad luck!” He must have wondered what was the idea of all his trials, he could not know that it was a stork. But through them all he kept his purpose in view, nothing made him turn round and go home, he finished his course, he kept his faith. That man had his reward. In the morning he saw the stork. He must have laughed out loud then.
The tight place, the dark pit in which I am now lying, of what bird is it the talon? When the design of my life is complete, shall I, shall other people see a stork?
Infandum, Regina, jubes renovare dolarem. Troy in flames, seven years of exile, thirteen good ships lost. What is to come out of it? “Unsurpassed elegance, majestic stateliness, and sweet tenderness.”
from Out of Africa
Echoing Karen Blixen above, what, after all, is the draw we left? A suggestion I would like to bring to light here is that the footprints composing a stork might be our earliest memory. Why are our earliest memories important? This question itself implicitly suggests a key point: they belong to our-self, that is, they constitute the beginning of our autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory can be conceived of as what makes possible humans’ being, giving them the ability to say “I” or “me” so as to distinguish a single, unique person who has his or her own life history, a present and expectation of a future. In this regard, autobiographical memory fulfills important functions for the individual, which can be summarized in three main categories: the self, the social and the directive function (Bluck, Alea, Habermas, & Rubin, 2005). These categories interact with each other in psychological life, creating a coherent functioning of autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory enables individuals to understand who they are, and position themselves along a continuum of space and time. Thanks to autobiographical memory we look back to a past that precedes a present, experiencing a coherent sense of self-continuity over time (self-function). The ability to see ourselves in a coherent way, remembering what happened to us in the past, leads to an ability to evaluate and examine the environment. This makes it possible to perform actions, based on choices, planning for present and future behaviour. Thus, autobiographical memory constitutes an important and instructive body of knowledge for individuals (directive function). Language, along with communication of our memories, of our plans, scopes and experiences, is what makes our self individual yet socially situated, making us capable of bonding with others (social function).
Alireza Hesaraki, Native Language
Nonetheless, the most important function of autobiographical memory is social (Neisser, Winograd, Fivush, & Hirst, 1999). Indeed, it is in the social transmission of memory to others, in the shared and collective reminiscent of a story or event, that what has been stored knowledge overcomes the limitations of physical channels, becoming cultural transmission of experience to others for their collective future benefit (Halbwachs, 1992). In this way, future generations expand their developmental options on the basis of previous social practices, elevating these options to a higher level of experience. Consider, for instance, the role assumed by collective performances, theatrical performances for example, based on extreme situations such as genocide or mass murder, in transmitting witnesses’ memories to the audience. The dramatic enactment actually enables witnesses to fulfil their role in a complete manner, because the audience becomes involved in such a way as to share the shocking past experience with the witnesses, as, for example, happened for the Rwandese genocide (Artioli, 2002; Kalisa, 2006). At the same time, the challenge of autobiographical memory, in its social, collective and historical role, occupies a place of evolutionary significance: autobiographical memory is a product of the person-environment interaction. Considering the changes in the society we live in, autobiographical memory must be seen as changing, too, in its function of helping us to cope with differences in our socio-cultural environment (Nelson, 2003). Nowadays industrialized societies give people fewer and fewer fixed points of reference from which to build our own autobiographical “project” and this, in turn, renders research on autobiographical memory far more complex than previously (Markowitsch & Welzer, 2010). This last challenge seems to entail, in studies on autobiographical memory development, a constant search in particular for the starting point of an individual’s earliest memories, but this search can never be exhaustive. As long as societies and cultures continue to change, so too will the development of autobiographical memory. The boundary of the first appearance of autobiographical memory will also vary for any given person according to his/her social environment.
The study of the earliest memory, then, acquires sense in the understanding of how autobiographical memory develops the way it does. In fact, if we think of our own earliest memory, we can see that the first thing we can recall about ourselves does not, usually, correspond with our first day of life. That is, one’s existence starts with birth but we cannot say the same for a person’s past; our past in some ways does not start with us (Wang, 2008). In the study of this incongruence, which accounts for the development of autobiographical memory, research on earliest memories assumes great importance. The “gap” between our birth and the appearance of our first autobiographical recall is referred to as the childhood amnesia phenomenon. We universally find it difficult remembering our very early years, but at a certain point we all start to recall something about ourselves. People do that at slightly different ages, although we all want to gain knowledge from earliest memories about “who we are” and, importantly, who we can become (Conway, Williams, & Byrne, 2008).
Discussing the childhood amnesia phenomenon at this point is crucial, because the rationale for the extensive resources devoted to mapping, dating, and analyzing earliest memories across different cultures and age groups is that where this phenomenon ceases, autobiographical memory begins, and this event is set by the appearance of the recall of our earliest memory. The fact that appearance of the first memory does not occur at the same time for everyone, and the question of why our remembered past never starts at the same time as our biological emergence, still requires more research (Hayne & Jack, 2011). There are neither obvious explanations nor single answers to these questions. The childhood amnesia phenomenon was identified by Freud (1899), who clinically observed that people’s pasts are hidden from themselves until around age 6, with scope to actively “repress” memories concerning sexual impulses which would be disturbing were they to gain access to them prior to reaching adulthood. Childhood amnesia has further been described in the literature sometimes as the inability of adults to recall events from their infancy and early childhood (Pillemer & White, 1989); a paradoxical paucity of memories that date from our earliest childhood (e.g. Dudycha & Dudycha, 1933; Eacott & Crawley, 1999) or, again, as the impoverished recall of autobiographical memories from early childhood (Bruce, Hearn, Robinson, Grant, & al, 2005). That is, some authors emphasize the inability to recall something which was encoded and consolidated (the encoding and consolidation hypothesis), other authors refer to a recall which is instead impoverished, that is, recall of a period where memories are scarce rather than non-existent (the storage and retrieval hypothesis) (Bauer, 2008).
On the debate about storage and retrieval vs. encoding and consolidation, while writing this article for #archiveseries, I kept thinking back to my own memory of a visit at the Otago Natural Museum in Dunedin, New Zealand. Dunedin was the place where I did my PhD research on the earliest memories. During a visit at the Museum, I had the chance to see an installation called “The Vault”, by Neil Pardington.
Neil Pardington, Natural Sciences Dry Store #2, Otago Museum, 2008
I was surprised to gain so much insight for my research hypothesis on the destiny of our very earliest memories from his work, which overlaps with the idea of an archive, although a natural history museum’s one. In quoting the author: “When I was nine or ten years old I came across a drawing of a building named ‘The Radcliffe Camera’ in the end papers of an Oxford dictionary. A building called a ‘camera’ seemed strange to me at the time, but a quick flick through the pages of the dictionary revealed the connection—a ‘camera’ in Latin is a vaulted room or chamber. This was possibly the first occasion that I marvelled at the etymology of a word, and over the years the same two-volume dictionary has become a well-thumbed companion and source of enlightenment. (…) Besides being a small room, the camera has lately become an enormous one—a warehouse or factory in which ideas and images are manufactured and stored. (…) This idea of the camera being a storehouse of ideas and images (or as Kodak would have it, memories) is central to ‘The Vault’. In a somewhat reflexive manner, this series focuses on the places we store those things that are most precious to us, and conversely those very similar spaces we store the obsolete and unwanted. I (…) It’s not the face, or front-of-house of these places that I’ve photographed, it’s the storage areas themselves – the back-of-house vaults, archives and basements. These images have their own rhythm, or beat, as the stacks grow or shrink and gleam in their dark stores. There is a redolence of a different kind—the collected culture and history of those things we deem important enough to keep, and those we too easily discard. And in the end we may wonder which tells us more about ourselves” (Neil Pardington, The Vault).
Neil Pardington, Film Archive #1, The New Zealand Film Archive, 2004
Back to Karen Blixen and linking to Pardington’s reflection on what is stored in the Vault, I find it interesting how social aspects enter in the discussion so clearly. Blixen was in fact wondering whether either she herself or others will see a stork in her footprints, whereas Pardington’s noted the choice of what is showed off and what is left in the Vault is not only an individual (by, e.g. the curator) but also a cultural and historical choice. Consistently, in my research on earliest autobiographical memories, I and colleague found evidence of a relation between household composition and age of the first earliest memories. In both Italian and European New Zealanders, young adults growing up with more extra adults besides parents only in their household (e.g. grandparents, stepparents, uncle, auntie, etc), reported earlier age of their very first memories. Put in other words, an extended family environment one’s grows up in is associated with an early beginning of one’s past (Artioli, Cicogna, Occhionero, & Reese, 2012; Artioli & Reese, 2013).
Neil Pardington, Photo Store #1, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, 2008
Thus, drawing from past literature as well, I argue that significant adults in our family might be crucial in determine “precious things” we would recall, bringing them in the front-of-house where our earliest memories are recalled vs. those memories we leave in the back-of-house vaults, in the childhood amnesia archive. A likely explanation for the link between earliest memories and people we grew up with, is that growing up in a hausehold with a richer network of significant adults leads to an advantage in the quantity of accessible memories from early childhood, likely throughout a richer family storytelling process. In extended caregiving situations, children are more likely to be involved in memory sharing for greater periods of time and with more significant adults, with memories from the childhood amnesia period becoming more easily retrieved once they are adolescents and adults (Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006; Reese & Fivush, 1993).
What we then recall about ourselves, what we have shared with our significant adults and what we will decide to tell about us once adults ourselves would, in turn, render possible to see a stork in our footprint? (Cavarero, 1997) . After all, we need social influences from adults at early stages of our development to set our inner self-attributes and peculiarities and to understand how to relate with others, bringing our unique autobiography, once we are adults ourselves. In doing so, we can blend our existence with a broader history which connects us to other human beings, both in the present and in the past, to become part of that uniquely human construct that is collective memory. Collective memory is rooted in the past, but has branches into the future: it is in the collective memory that past generations and human actions can find an orientation to prevent past errors and to evolve towards a sense of belongingness, across individuals and cultures (Halbwachs & Coser, 1992).
Federica Artioli, was born in Carpi (MO). She got a degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Padova and a postgraduate degree in Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy at the School of Cognitive Studies in Modena. After the postgraduate she has lived in New Zealand for three years, where she achieved a PhD in Psychology at Otago University (Dunedin, New Zealand), with a thesis entitled “Memories, Families, Cultures. Family Factors and Earliest Memories in a Cultural Perspective” under the supervision of Prof. Elaine Reese. She currently works as a clinical psychologist for adolescence at the family counseling AUSL of Romagna and collaborates with a memory research group with Prof.ssa Piercarla Cicogna and Prof.ssa Miranda Occhionero from the University of Bologna, Prof. Andrea Smorti from University of Florence and Prof. Elaine Reese from the University of Otago (NZ).
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