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Memories fade faster than you think

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:25 PM

I doubt very many genealogists consider themselves scientists. A recent study —published in the Journal of Neuroscience however, offers proof that valid genealogical study works on a solid scientific basis and isn't something based on whims of obsessed family historians.

Proof that a brain alters memories — and then believes it hasn't — came from a study by Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine post doctoral fellow Donna Jo Bridge.

Bridge is studying long-term memory consolidation, focusing on points such as how an experience is transformed into a long-term representation, whether retrieving a memory influences what we remember later, and whether memories really reflect events that happened when they were initially experienced or whether they become distorted over time.

It's quickly obvious that work in these areas would be critical to genealogical research, much of which depends on written accounts of historical events or interviews with (usually) elderly family members.

Bridge wrote "your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval." She adds, "When someone tells me they are sure they remember exactly the way something happened, I just laugh."

She explains that memories are static, influenced by new environments and time. "If you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information."

We genealogists have known for a long time that a third great-grandma's recall of her own date of marriage probably conflicts with other evidence because it happened so long ago — and because remembering the date of a marriage wasn't nearly as important as cooking, cleaning, sewing and raising a dozen young'uns, plus helping her husband with the livestock and harvesting the crops. Talk about things that could have affected her moods.

The good news for those of us who have been following the advice of the profession's sages is that this reinforces the tenets under which we've been working.

First, our mentors have taught us to seek primary rather than secondary information – in other words, get details provided by someone with first-hand knowledge of the event we are studying. When it comes to analyzing information, we know to give more credibility to accounts written or spoken closer to the event.

Now Bridge, a researcher with impressive credentials, confirms our genealogical approaches by telling us her scientific study supports that the closer to an event someone records what they did, what they saw, or what they felt, the likelier it is to be accurate. Accuracy, she said, begins to fade even within a day.

We've always known that secondary information is less reliable. But Bridge's work does add a layer of caution to accepting even primary information.

To some degree we genealogists already had that point covered, too, because the Genealogical Proof Standard requires that we conduct an exhaustive search on everything we assert as "fact." We know that even if we get a detail from an original source with primary information (that's supposed to be the best of the best) it cannot stand alone. We must look in every nook and cranny for information that might support or refute each "fact."

This would explain why an ancestor's account written into a journal or a letter simultaneous to the event — or immediately afterward — differs from a memoir he wrote 10 years after the event. It also explains why Grandma's stories of her childhood changed each time she entertained you with them.

Now those of us who question the accuracy of everyone's accounts of events can point to an actual respected, applauded scientific study to explain why we drive the rest of you crazy with our skepticism.

And perhaps those of you who have blindly accepted everything you read as being "the truth" will question more.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.
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