Faint Memories

June 10th, 2012

Our early childhoods are a foreign land; we remember little from those times. What we do remember is distorted and fragmentary. But I do recall three of those memories, and I’d like to make some interesting points about them. First, all three memories involve me in our old Studebaker – this was around 1955. I don’t know why I seem to remember events in that car better than other events. In each case I was in the back seat (obviously).
In my first recollection my mom was driving and my grandmother was in the front passenger seat. I was looking up at the microwave antennas on the roof of a tall building when suddenly there was a loud screech and I was thrown violently forward against the back of the front passenger seat. At the time I thought that these strange microwave cones had something to do with it.
That’s all I remember visually. But there’s another aspect of the memory: I recall that we were going north at the time, and we were about ten miles east of our house.
In my second recollection, my mother was in the passenger seat and my father was driving. They were talking about somebody. My mother said, “You know she’s pregnant now.” We were traveling southwest, and we were about a mile northeast of our house.
In my third recollection, we were going to church on a Sunday morning and my mom was driving, with my big brother in the front passenger seat. I was behind the driver’s seat. I stared at a century plant on the left that was in the midst of sending up its tall spike. We were going north, about half a mile west northwest of our house.
What’s striking about all these memories is the precision of my spatial memory. I recall exactly who was sitting where in the car. I also recall the direction we were moving and the spatial relationship to our house. It’s quite remarkable, I think, that this information stuck in my memory even though most other details are lost. It’s as if these memories are organized visually. And in fact most of my memories from those days are like snapshots from a moment in time, primarily visual in nature.
But how on earth did I know (or think I knew) where we were in relation to my home? How could a five-year old recall these spatial relationships so clearly? Thinking about it, I decided to take a test: I would draw sketch maps of the two neighborhoods in which I lived during my youth. Then I would compare my sketch maps with the real thing from Google maps. Here are the results:

Here’s where I lived until about age 7. I pretty much nailed everything except the non-right angle at which Chimney Rock road (right edge) intersects Jessamine and Bissonet.




Here’s where I live from age 7 to age 11. The X on the left marks where my house was. This map is considerably larger than the earlier one (I had a bicycle). I got a lot of details wrong, such as the way that Pontiac Drive (right edge) bends, and the non-existence of a north-south cross street parallel to Pontiac Drive. I also mistakenly put a bend in Kuldell Drive. In my defense, I’ll point out that much of this area was open fields when I lived there. We especially had fun at Brays Bayou, which was undeveloped at that time and full of turtles, snakes, and other fun stuff.

But how on earth did I know (or think I knew) where we were in relation to my home? How could a five-year old recall these spatial relationships so clearly? Thinking about it, I decided to take a test: I would draw sketch maps of the two neighborhoods in which I lived during my youth. Then I would compare my sketch maps with the real thing from Google maps. Here are the results:
Despite the errors in both maps, I still think it’s remarkable that I can remember so much spatial information more than 50 years later. Again, the question is, how? Is it that I have especially strong spatial memory? Or is this a common experience? To answer this question, I’d like to gather some data. If you meet these conditions:
1. You left a neighborhood of your youth before the age of 12.
2. You have never been back there since.
3. You’re older than 30 years.
Then please sketch a map of your old neighborhood, scan it, and place it next to a Google map of the area, in the same fashion that I have done here. Then send it to me at this stupidly garbled email address:



Include your name – or don’t – as you prefer. I’ll compile some results and periodically update this.