If you’ve ever heard anyone say they remember being born, the subsequent tale was probably a pretty conclusive demonstration that they definitely don’t. Any stories that conform to an adult understanding of the environment are inevitably going to be false.
But far-fetched internet threads that begin with “I think I remember being born”, then rapidly reach “…And there were two nurses talking to a doctor”, and end with “…And then the Lord Jesus Christ said…”, don’t mean the retention of exceptionally early memories is impossible.
I’m hard to convince when it comes to scientifically unproven concepts. I’m not religious, I don’t believe in life after death, and I reject astrology. But I do believe that long-term memory begins much earlier than most research will acknowledge, and as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s down to personal experience.
CAN ANY VERY EARLY MEMORIES BE REAL?
I’m considered an unusual case (or mistaken, or a liar), in that I have several memories which I know date back to before I was a year old. I’d categorise most of these as conventional memories, as opposed to the very unconventional memory I’m going to relate in due course. But no memory that comes from a time before you’re able to walk or talk is truly conventional.
Pre-walk/talk memories are extremely valuable, but in my experience they are not pleasant to re-live. They come from a time of mental isolation, full of stress, fear and panic. And the deeper you travel back into your pre-walk/talk period, the more severed you are from the support system of communication and life experience. The most simple things can trip the panic lever. Like a parent pulling forward the hood on your pram. Instant separation anxiety. And remember, you can’t ask why. You have to try to work it out yourself. You have to try to work everything out yourself. It’s just you and your thoughts.
Are pre-walk/talk memories real? Many researchers will say no. But those researchers are not seeing the unusual perspectives, and the altered size-relationships, which roll seamlessly and consistently throughout each sequence. They’re not revisiting the range of helpless anxieties which are not only characteristic of that pre-walk/talk period, but also completely alien to an adult.
How does an adult fabricate a memory full of perspectives and thought-processes they supposedly have no capacity to remember. Where would they get the content? Even to fabricate a memory, you have to base the content on something within your knowledge. If you have no knowledge of the Spanish language, you can’t fabricate a conversation in Spanish. Likewise, if you’ve lost all mental connection with infant perspective, you can’t fabricate experiences from an infant perspective.
If you go back to an early enough point in your life, what you recall becomes so alien that it’s harder to explain how or why an adult would construct it, than it is to simply accept that a brain, which has always needed memory capacity to function, would remember it.
A memory is suspect if it’s been forgotten and then recovered. But if it’s been there uninterrupted since the original event – perhaps even recounted to a family member during childhood – the false memory theory becomes all the more difficult to uphold. There has to be a moment where a false memory is concocted. If it’s always been there, where do you situate that moment?
Whilst memories from the age of, say, 8 months to 12 months, are full of alien elements, they are at least recognisable as memories. Conversely, those from the initial period after birth, if they exist at all, are going to be totally removed from anything we can even relate to as adults. That makes them an almighty challenge to identify as memories, even if we’ve managed to somehow preserve them.
So the bizarre experience I’m now going to recount is certainly not something I can confirm is a memory. My current view is that it’s a type of memory, but I’m not going to compromise the credibility of this post by categorically claiming that it is.
When I first began to get curious about the experience, I was around four years old. I could have still been three, and based on a documented change in surroundings, I definitely hadn’t reached the age of five. But even then, the experience wasn’t new. As a four(ish)-year-old, I couldn’t remember when the experience had started. It was totally familiar, but I didn’t know where it had come from, or what it was meant to represent.
The experience can best be summed up as a drastic distortion of self- and spatial-awareness. It could come with or without a visual element. If there was a visual element, it would always be abstract. There could also be subtle sound. But again, nothing I recognised at the age of four or later.
The experience would only occur at night, when I lay down to go to sleep. I’d have to be lying on my side, with my eyes closed. I wouldn’t be asleep, but I’d be deeply relaxed to the point where I was no longer focused on the detail of how my body and limbs were positioned.
Once the awareness of my physical body had dimmed sufficiently, I’d suddenly envisage myself as a single point, with no inherent size. Not intentionally. That notion would just assert itself. I’d feel sizeless, and would lose awareness of my physical body – like it didn’t exist at all.
I’d then begin transitioning through different awarenesses of the amount of space around me. Sometimes, I’d start with an approximate notion of the distance between me and the wall next to the bed. But if so, that understanding would evaporate, and I’d begin to run through a range of spatial possibilities. At one extreme, no space around me, and the world beyond me doesn’t exist. At the other extreme, infinity, and the almost breathtaking challenge of trying to comprehend never-ending space. Not space as in astronomy. Just space as in the size of the environment around me.
The fluctuations from one spatial concept to the next would be rapid, and the whole thing was only momentary. Only a few seconds max from beginning to end.
When I was very young, this involuntary experience was frequent, but over the years it gradually became a lot less familiar. At age four, I might go through it more than once in a week. At age twelve, it wouldn’t happen for months. And as the experience got more infrequent, it also became much more uncomfortable. As I went into my teens, I found the experience horrendously alien and disturbing. Deeply uncomfortable.
The last time the experience occurred I’d gone what was probably about a year without any hint of it. And it suddenly struck one night, with a rapid and stark fluctuation from zero space to infinite space. I hadn’t been asleep, but immediately after it happened I felt like I’d had a nightmare. I resolved on the spot to prevent myself from ever going through it again, and for some weeks I slept on my back, knowing it had never happened under that circumstance. I was in my early teens when I took conscious steps to avoid the weird sensation, and it never came back.
As an adult, I became a lot more curious about this strange phenomenon. I tried to induce it, but whatever I did, it would not return. So whilst I’m now left with memories of the experience, I’m no longer capable of having the experience itself.
What fascinated me, was the way something which had been completely intolerable by the age of about thirteen, had not been in any way uncomfortable at the age of four. The exact same experience had struck me as more and more disturbing, the more my understanding of normality evolved.
WAS THIS JUST A DREAM?
The involuntary nature of this experience, and the fact it always happened in bed, in a state of relaxation, does suggest it was a type of dream. But I was always conscious, and did not have to wake in order to refocus my thoughts elsewhere, so I don’t regard it as a dream. The very short duration of it was also uncharacteristic of a typical dream.
But even if it was a type of recurring dream, the content had to come from somewhere. Dreams might often be weird, but it’s clear their content comes from real life. And even for a four-year-old, feeling like a massless point, whilst rapidly running through different understandings of the space (or lack of) in your surrounding environment, is obviously not in “what I did/saw today but with dream-warp” territory.
MAKING SENSE OF THE EXPERIENCE
One of the problems I had in trying to make sense of the experience as an adult was that sensation of being massless. Like a little dot. For years I took this literally, and thought that the experience could not have been a memory, or even based on a memory, because if I really was the size of a little dot, I obviously would not have a brain with the capacity to remember.
I even considered the possibility of the experience being caused by medication, although I ruled that out because the phenomenon persisted, consistently, for far too long to attribute to any single medication type.
Then it struck me that feeling like a little dot and actually being a little dot are two different things. Before you become aware of your body, I reasoned, you probably do feel like you have no mass of your own, even though you’re physically quite substantial. This epiphany changed what the experience was to me, from a mystery, to a memory.
And if it was a memory, the point in my life upon which it was based would have to have been very, very early indeed.
IF THIS IS A TYPE OF MEMORY, HOW EARLY IS IT?
There’s a mass of reference for how babies behave, but nothing reliable at all for how they actually feel or experience the world. So it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in your life as a very young child, where you’d be in the throes of establishing the very most basic spatial awareness.
Articles on the subject of infants’ spatial awareness tend to introduce it as a capability at around six months. But spatial awareness has to be relatively advanced in order for it to be tested. So the very most basic seeds of evaluating the general environment would considerably predate a testable stage. Add in the lack of recognisable visual content and physical body-awareness, and there’s a sense of this experience having at least some mental connection with an original reality that probably took place within the first three months of life.
WHY DO MOST OF US NOT RETAIN VERY EARLY MEMORIES?
I believe the experience I described was a type of memory, which had probably existed as exactly that until the age of around three or four. At that stage, I most likely lost the ‘audit trail’ back to the period during which original reality occurred. So the experience, now unexplained, became a mild curiosity. Then a deeper curiosity, which ultimately came to contradict my sense of comfort so much that it became unbearable.
Given my own experience of pre-walk/talk memories, and the often panic-stricken world they recall, I’ve come to believe that people may let their early memories go as a coping mechanism rather than because they don’t have the wherewithal to hang onto them. At the age of nine months or less, you have no answers, and can ask no questions. You have no access to reassurance. You have little control over your mobility, no meaningful communication… It can get extraordinarily scary. Forgetting that period of your life would make sense not only as a conscious strategy, but also as a Darwinian facet of nature. That is…
Natural selection would favour people with a tendency to forget early infancy, because memories dictate behaviour, and too many recollections of anxiety and lack of control are going to have a debilitating effect on an adult.
I’m not oblivious to studies on the brain, its development, how it stores information, and the way it changes in early life. But I don’t accept that we are born without any means of retaining event memories in the long term. I think we can also potentially remember things that happen pre-birth, although for two reasons I think it’s highly unlikely…
1. The way we would interpret events at that stage would be so alien to adult understanding that identifying them as memories beyond very early childhood would be close to impossible.
2. Being able to make sense of something is key to remembering it, and before birth we just don’t know enough to make sense of things. For example, you can memorise this sentence within three seconds, and probably recite it back to me tomorrow…
“The prince was in love with the princess.”
But you can’t do the same with this one, even though it has fewer letters in it…
“gh56hfdsc jykl pvmw 4n8wt jx asws t2fd.”
The first sentence makes immediate sense, and so is immediately memorable. The second one doesn’t, and is therefore exceptionally hard to memorise.
A lot of game-changing info can be learned from the exploration of very early memories. But people have to stop drawing lines, and saying “no memory earlier than this can survive”. Memories earlier than that do survive. It’s arrogant to be saying that someone’s very early memory is probably false, when there’s still such a vast amount that academia doesn’t understand about the brain, and when there’s not even a widely accepted theory on where memories are stored.