The Youngest Memories and Your Narrative Socio-Cultural Environment

Posted on March 2, 2009 by


The first episodic memory of myself I have is when I was about 2 and a half.  Not sure if I was walking or talking yet.  But my mom was carrying me on her back in some kind of public pool.  The splashing got to me, invaded my lungs.  I really felt like I was drowning.

Now how’s that for the first episodic memory of your life?  Being at the edge of death before I even got started.

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Cognition and Culture pointed to a study of childhood memories in the Maori peoples of New Zealand.  Previously it was found that Maori adults report the earliest memories of their childhoods.  Their memories average around 2 and half years old, while American adults average around 3 and half years old.  Asian folks have the latest reported memories, dated at about age 4.

A new study led by the same researcher wanted to focus in on how the Maori produced a cultural context from which their grown children could recall their earliest memories.  To rain in on this, she and her team interviewed mothers and their children about the children’s memories:

Maori mothers with a highly elaborative style of discussing past events of cultural and familial significance may be helping their children to encode a wide range of early memories in a richer way and later to retain these early memories into adulthood.  Maori mothers’ specific emphasis on relative time in the birth stories, if indeed this emphasis extends to other significant events, may help children to better organize their early experiences along a timeline and later to facilitate retrieval of those early memories (see also Fivush & Nelson, 2006, for
a similar argument).

Abstract Here

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So why do the Maori have the youngest memories?

The point of this paper is basically saying that getting parents to talk about their childrens’ past is a good way to understand how parents remember things and are a good indicator for how children’s memories will be structured.

Clearly, stories of everyday shared past experiences are a good indicator of parents’ reminiscing style and a strong predictor of children’s memory regardless of one’s culture.

Essentially, this paper was trying to establish that a richer narrative environment indeed existed for the Maori, in comparison to Pakeha (and perhaps by correlation American and Asian) narrative environments.  The richer narrative environment was packed in mothers’ narratives with references to time and emotion.  The richer narrative environment of the Maori, in turn, helps influence richer memories and perhaps even earlier memories.

I think it’s true that with a richer narrative environment, perhaps you can better recall more memories of yourself at younger ages.  However, whether that has any bearing on actually having the youngest “truest”, highly personal, individual episodic memories, I’m not too sure.

Yes, memory is an imaginative and almost highly social construction, but I’m just wondering how many of the Maori recall those things on their own.  With a minimum of social interference.

Seems to me that their mothers have been the main source of memories while their children pick up on what they say and gradually embedded those stories within their own personal repertoire of memory.  Definitely speaks to a richer storytelling environment for the Maori, perhaps even better memory practices, but not sure if that necessarily means the youngest episodic, personalized emotional memory.

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My resistance to accepting the conclusion of Maoris having on average “the youngest memories” is based on my own experience.  It’s one example, in one small context, but I’d like to know where it fits in these studies of the “youngest memories recorded.”

I thought I experienced my earliest memory pretty vividly at age 2 and a half, mostly by myself.  I didn’t need a rich narrative environment to recall that memory.  I don’t think I’ve lived in a very rich narrative environment. However, true to being American and Asian, I don’t really recall much else during age 3, and a lot more memories I can start attributing to age 4.  So perhaps the study reveals that children of the Maori, with these rich narrative environments, are predisposed to forming and thus remembering more memories.  The narratives form those events in the child’s mind whether they individually, independently remember them or not, and they’re simply recalling those co-constructed, parent-helped narratives.

Another explanation as to why Maori may have the earliest memories is this: Maori adults experience more prominent events in early childhood as embedded in their cultural public ritual, specifically a funeral rite.

I’m not sure I agree with that explanation simply because my own episodic memory at 2 and a half years old wasn’t exactly a ritual.  With the latest study centered around mothers and their children, perhaps the funeral just happens to be the easiest reference point for adult mothers and their children to convene.

From the article:

One possibility is that Maori children simply experience more salient events in early childhood than do Pakeha [white people from New Zealand] children. As one example, a Maori funeral or tangi is much more elaborate and extended in time compared to a typical Pakeha funeral, and children are allowed and even encouraged to participate fully in the event from a very young age.

While I may not agree with the possibility that Maori may experience “more events”, the paper brings up an interesting point about “salience.”  I’m curious about how we learn what events are “salient” in the first place.  How do things even become “salient”?  How do things become prominent and relevant to us?  And moreover, how do we hold onto them years afterward?

Applied to my own episodic memory, perhaps, I learned “salience” in the fact that it was the first time I probably felt like I could’ve died.  Perhaps this was the first time my survival and fear senses kicked up, which therefore embedded it with a sense of power-packed emotion which would be easy to recall.