Visiting the Past

Memory is tricky. Modern research suggests that each time we dredge up a memory we re-write it, even if just slightly.

Genealogists don’t always allow for that when we work with our own or other people’s memories. Some people even resist the idea. I’ve had people stoutly defend stories that seem implausible or even impossible because that’s the way they remember it, or because Grandpa surely would have known.

Koty Neelis has a nice article about some of the things we think and feel when we visit places from our past. Hitting just the highlights:

  1. You think about who you used to be the last time you were here.
  2. There’s a bittersweet feeling that comes when you realize the things and places you once knew are no longer the same.
  3. You look back at how far you’ve come since you last left.
  4. You miss the people you used to know.
  5. You romanticize the better memories and bury the moments that hurt you the most.

I think the emotional component we see here might explain, at least partly, why our brains re-write our memories. In essence, we’re updating. Our mental software is designed to update itself based on new information. Part of our essential survival strategy.

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