Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, September 3, 2018

Memory and Genealogy: What can we remember?

Human memory is episodic. Here is one definition of episodic memory.
Episodic memories are consciously recollected memories related to personally experienced events. Episodic remembering is a dynamic process that draws upon mnemonic and non-mnemonic cognitive abilities in order to mentally reconstruct past experiences from retrieval cues. The neural substrates of these abilities represent a distributed set of functionally-specific nervous system structures that operate in concert. See E.J. Ploran, M.E. Wheeler, in Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, 2017. Wheeler, M.E., Ploran, E.J., Episodic Memory, Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, 2009, Pages 1167-1172
As genealogists, we depend on memories for much of the information we cite as sources for incidents in our ancestors' lives. Many of these retrieved memories cannot be independently verified. Episodic memory pertains to those things we and our ancestors personally remember. Semantic memory is the term used for all other memories that do not rely on our personal experiences such as facts, meanings, and concepts about the external world. There are other kinds of memory also but genealogical research focuses only on those memories that pertain to events.

Let me use a U.S. Federal Census record from the 1920 Census as an example.

How much of the information in this census record came from the memory of the people listed? The answer is that there is no way to tell what information came solely from memory. The U.S. Census records do not identify the informant. We do not know who supplied the information to the Census Enumerator. Without comparing the information to other records, we cannot tell if any of the information is correct.

Why then do we blindly copy and rely on the information in the Census records? That is a question for another post, but simply put, they are available and easy to search. One piece of information that is not generated by memory is the location of the individual or family. If more people focused on using the location information, the conclusions drawn from the records would be more accurate.

Memory plays a huge part in all of our historical investigations. We need to remember to evaluate almost all records according to these criteria. Of course, there are many more considerations we also need to apply.
  • Who supplied the information?
  • When was the information recorded?
  • When did the events mentioned in the record occur?
  • How consistent is the recorded information with that contained in other records?
  • How internally consistent is the information supplied?
Another example of memory is the common death certificate record in the United States. Death certificates commonly provide a birth date and the names of parents. But in all these cases, the information is being supplied by someone who is relying on memory for the information. 

Episodic memory changes over time. As we remember events in our lives, we tend to edit the information to conform to our interpretation of the importance of the event. We may vividly recall some aspects of the event but cannot remember the time frame or the place where the event occurred. We may also be unable to remember what happened both before and after the event. 

For many years now, the news has been full of accusations of "false memories." As genealogists, these false memories do not always represent traumatic events but can refer to things as simple as a false memory of a relative's relationship or some other detail of a family. People can be wrong about what they remember. If you want a good example of this important fact, ask one of your relatives to retell a traditional family story. One of the Tanner family's most important traditional stories about our common ancestor was first recorded by a descendant of the original Tanner who never heard the story first hand. The details of the story as written do not agree with other written accounts. 

If we want to be careful researchers, we always need to be aware of the circumstances surrounding the creation of any of the records we rely on. 

1 comment:

  1. What surprises me most is how birth and immigration years can vary so much for the same person between censuses. I can't believe the people are forgetting their own birth or immigration year, but must be in some cases estimated by the census taker without asking them, or getting answers like I immigrated about 10 years ago and the census taker then figures out a year from that.