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The Genealogist’s Memory

By Daniel Hubbard | November 6, 2011

Sometimes things just come together and force a post to be written. Last week I wrote about some stories of a man’s descent from some famous members of the Putnam family of Salem Village. None of those stories turned out to be true in the sense that he was not descended from any of the people claimed. Yet there was some truth hiding in those stories. Before it was written down, memory had drifted from what had actually happened but not so far that there was nothing true in it at all. This week the workings of memory keep popping up. It must be time to write.  Memory plays a big roll in genealogy.

Research Memory

One way that memory enters into genealogy is through our own memories as we research. Ideally, we get copies of every important record and write down all the details needed for a citation. Later we know exactly what it is and where we found it. In practice, that sometimes is not the way it works, especially when starting out in family history. A few hours or days later we me be trying to remember something important. Something you missed writing down or something whose importance you didn’t realize until after studying the information you did record. “What was it that the author wrote on the page before I started to make copies?” “What was that other name recorded in the deed index?”

The accuracy of those memories will vary. The importance of the information you think that you remember will vary. Depending on how you would use the memory, how much you dare trust it will vary.

Story Memory

Memory enters into family history in other, more important ways as well. It plays a roll in creating and preserving stories. Even in highly literate societies, family stories are usually passed down orally. They are remembered and repeated but not written and read. That oral process is part of what makes a family story. Even in just one person’s retellings, the story becomes more polished, details not there at the first telling are added later. Sometimes they are things that were left out at first but put back in when the storyteller realized that the story is better with them. Other details are added not because they are literally true or because they make a real factual difference but because they make the story better. Then there are those embellishments that add substantial information but that are not actually true.

One thing that I find fascinating about memory is that the act of remembering changes memory. Telling a story actually changes the way it is remembered. Every time it is brought up from memory it becomes altered. What is remembered next time is not the original occurrence or the first time the storyteller heard the story. We bring up a story from memory and tell it or even just think about it and then it goes back into memory. What we remember later is changed. It is part original memory and part memory of all the retellings, another retelling added every time. Some parts of the memory become reenforced by being remembered. Other parts are allowed to fade by being ignored. In the best cases this is like polishing a gem. It is not simply changed, it is improved. It can also allow the memory to drift away from what really happened. Maybe something that was not really remembered when you heard the story changes from speculation to fact when the story is retold.

Document Memory

Memory also plays a roll in creating our records. Everything that is written must be remembered first. An event may have happened a mere second before pen hit paper or it may have happened years before. If the event was never brought up from memory, it may have faded before being recorded on paper. If it was retold many times, it may have drifted from what actually happened. The writer might be the person with the memory or the writer may be writing down someone else’s memories. The writer may have written what he heard as he heard it or he may be adding things at the end that he remembers from the beginning of a long discussion.

Some parts of a document may reflect strong, fresh memories. Other parts of the same document might record faded memories that may be the best ones possible and yet not be very good. Stress when a document is created can lead to faults in memory that would not have occurred during calmer times. The grief of death is famous for altering what is recalled when a death record is produced.

The memories of several people may be involved in producing a document, so that it reflects more than what any one person remembered. Those memories will hopefully be woven together in a coherent and informative way but it is possible that they won’t be. Especially in court cases, documents may record memories that disagree.

Genealogical Memory

Since an MRI study a few years ago, it has been known that the drivers of London’s black cabs have brains that have developed differently from other people’s brains. The amount of spacial information those cabbies need to remember is extreme. They need to remember the maze of streets, the positions of popular destinations, the best routes and the best alternatives if the preferred route has a problem. They spend years in training. The amount of spacial memory that one of these drivers has is significantly above the norm and the longer they drive, the bigger the difference. Buddhist monks who dedicate a great deal of time to meditation have also been studied and it seems that years of meditation also physically alter the brain. It was once thought that about the time we reached adulthood, our brains ceased to change. Their structure was set. That is no longer believed to be true.

The written word brought “memory” outside of any one mind. With it, things that have been totally forgotten may still be “remembered” on paper. As family historians we are in the business of transforming those paper memories into individuals, their interconnections and their stories. In the process we reconstruct memories. We have “memories” that are not ours, of things that were forgotten generations before we were born.

I have to wonder if this sort of “stretched” memory affects who we are. Memory, after all, defines or creates much of our identities. What I remember of my past experiences informs who I am. If I did not remember those experiences, how much of me would be left? What happens then if much of one’s time is spent recreating memories that are otherwise long gone—that originally belonged to people long gone? How deeply do we incorporate those memories? Sometimes I think the answer is very deeply. If we are immersed in navigating the past the way a London cabbie must be immersed in the task of navigating streets, do we alter who we are? I wonder, what would the brains of genealogists look like to an MRI machine? Recreated memory is not just important to what we do, I suspect it changes who we are.


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