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3 Steps to Grasp the Meaning of First Memories

Interpreting early recollections and their meaning in life.

Key points

  • Early recollections provide a glimpse into individuals' lived experiences.
  • To interpret early life memories, use a three-step process to identify a theme and analyze five personality dimensions and sensory modalities.
Source: Googleimage

In a recent public presentation, Gerry, a retired high school English teacher and college instructor, volunteered to share a first memory of life. When empathically listening to Gerry's early recollection, I imagined her experience as a little girl of five or six. When she completed her rendering of the memory, I began a three-step process of interpreting the meaning of the remembrance.

Gerry, age 78, related this early recollection in front of the audience:

I was going on an errand with my father where we lived in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was a summer day, and I had my shorts on. This was a big deal for me because it was unusual to go with my father on a walk. We crossed a busy street, and he held my hand because I was forbidden to cross it myself. We walked up a big hill, and there were stores on both sides of the street. We stopped at a small pub. My father said that he had to go in, and I went to the sidewalk outside of the pub. I felt a little nervous as I sat on the curb. A yellow dog sat down beside me and put his head on my lap.

In response to my question about adding further details to the memory, Gerry said, "Cars were going by on the street, and I could feel the curb where I sat." Reacting to my question about the most important part of the remembrance, Gerry stated, "When the dog sat next to me and put his head on my lap." At that point, she felt "safe and comfortable."

Three Steps to Grasp the Meaning of Early Recollections

The first step in understanding the meaning of early recollections relates to identifying a theme of the memory. For Gerry, the central point of her remembrance seems to be that life offers stimulating experiences involving uncertainties and challenges, but ultimately proves to be satisfying and fulfilling.

The second interpretive step focuses on five personality dimensions. For Gerry, degree of activity is high, as demonstrated by her emotional and physical engagement in the memory. Social interest is also elevated, as Gerry feels a kinship with her father and a dog, conveying a sense of belonging.

Even though Gerry experiences some anxiety in the remembrance, her optimism is notable and ultimately elicits feelings of well-being. Self-efficacy relates to an ability to surmount problems and challenges, and Gerry's behavior is marked in this dimension. Finally, Gerry's level of conscientiousness is high, as observable in her responsible and restrained actions.

The third step in the process relates to sensory modalities. In her memory, Gerry mentions the yellow color of the dog. In her life, she appreciates colors of various hues and finds colors to be emotionally uplifting. Relating to the senses, Gerry's visual capacity is prominent in her memory and is a primary orientation in life. Gerry's auditory process is detectable in a dialogue with her father, and on a daily basis, she enjoys conversations, listening to music, and random occurences of hearing pleasant sounds.

Gerry experiences a sense of touch when the dog places his head on her lap while sitting on the curb. In life, Gerry finds supportive touch important and gratifying, and she is particularly sensitive to the feel of physical materials that offer a sense of comfort. With respect to place or location, she appreciates both the stability of familiar places, while enjoying the novelty of exploring new locations. Relating to objects, a dog offers Gerry a special means of solace and support as a living and loving being.

I appreciate Gerry's willingness to share her early recollection by providing an opportunity to understand what life is like for her in our shared human experience of living.


Clark, A. J. (2013) Dawn of Memories: The Meaning of Early Recollections in Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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