Memories are Fragile & Easily Distorted

They say that five people can see the same event unfold and all remember what they saw differently. That’s bad enough, but now there’s solid evidence that our memories change with recall. That’s downright scary for the genealogist. I found an article posted in the October 21, 2012 edition of Tampa Bay Online to be very enlightening. Now … if I can only remember exactly what I read…

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.”

Read the full article.

Author: Leland Meitzler

Leland K. Meitzler founded Heritage Quest in 1985, and has worked as Managing Editor of both Heritage Quest Magazine and The Genealogical Helper. He currently operates Family Roots Publishing Company (, writes daily at, writes the weekly Genealogy Newsline, conducts the annual Salt Lake Christmas Tour to the Family History Library, and speaks nationally, having given over 2000 lectures since 1983.

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