The most elusive period of our lives occurs from birth to about the age of five. Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or reliable context. With their sensorial, almost cellular evocations, these memories seem to reside more in the body than the mind; yet they are central to our sense of who we are to ourselves. Part of the appeal of psychoanalysis may be that, in its quest to locate the faded child in the adult, it turns the adult into a kind of child at a play date with his analyst. The date is structured along the lines of imaginary play, complete with free association and open-ended conversation that can wind up anywhere; but like imaginary play, the date with the analyst follows a series of strict rules. The aim is to articulate what has been repressed, to fill in a blank in the narrative about ourselves. But as Alison Gopnik and her fellow cognitive psychologists have discovered, those years are so difficult to recapture not because of repression but because the states of consciousness and memory in early childhood are so different from those we experience later on.
more from Michael Greenberg at the NYRB here.