Sunday, June 21, 2020

Muscle Memory and the Paper Chase

I've often wondered why, when I first began my personal genealogical research, I could remember every twist and turn in the unfolding branches of that growing family tree, but now—several years later—I can't seem to recall even a small portion of the names in that collection. I tell myself to consider the immensity of such a demand; after all, I now have upwards of twenty thousand individuals in each of my own and my husband's family trees. However, something recently occurred which convinced me there may be another reason for that brain fade phenomenon.

I've lately been called back to the early pages of the pedigree chart for the Kelly branch of my father-in-law's heritage. Duplicating the work I put into building that family tree so long ago is not wasted effort, though. While for DNA-matching purposes I need to transfer records from my father-in-law's pedigree to a new, repurposed tree for my husband's entire family, I am discovering new details and documents that need to be added to the family's records. Think of this paper chase as a self-designed genealogy do-over.

As I've been moving, person by person, through those Kelly ancestors and their kin, I've noticed something I attribute to muscle memory. It's not unlike the kind of experience people feel when picking up a hobby they haven't tried in a long time. Like the oft-repeated saying about learning how to ride a bike, revisiting certain activities after a long absence seems to erase the gap of inactivity between first doing a repetitive task and resuming the practice.

Can researching one's ancestors create the same kind of muscle memory as, say, learning how to juggle—or ride a bike, even? After all, muscle memory is formed in doing everyday activities which improve with practice and eventually become automatic.

I am beginning to wonder if that is so. In the case of my paper chase to find the documents on my father-in-law's Kelly ancestors, I originally started the search in Fort Wayne, city of the family's newly-immigrant status in 1870. I mulled over burial records, cranked through microfilm of church records, wandered through cemeteries to photograph headstones, and drove through town to see the location of each of the family's residences over the decades.

In other words, by the time I finished researching the Kelly family, I knew their presence in Fort Wayne. I had been there. Read the newspaper articles. Walked the streets where their hundred year old houses once stood. I did it all in person. Their life details became a part of me by shadowing their footsteps.

It's been a long time since I revisited some of that research work. But once I re-checked each element this past week to see whether any details needed to be updated, the act of simply reviewing these records brought back a strange flood of memory. Not quite déjà vu, but close enough to feel as if I were walking those pathways again.

There is something we are missing by relying solely upon digitized record collections to assemble the record of our ancestry. In the ease of searching online from our own comfortable homes, we surely can access more records in less time than any genealogists of prior ages ever were able to secure. We are in an unparalleled golden age of research. And yet, we are missing something: the fruit of our hands-on efforts to trace our heritage.

Muscle memory, of course, is a misnomer. It is not just muscles which "remember" the activities we learn to do. A fascinating article which provides a brief overview of observations on brain function during and after learning new motor-skill tasks emphasizes that muscle memory is a very different sort of memory than, say, memorizing facts. Our brain works differently when it is learning by doing.

When our family walked the streets of Fort Wayne in search of our history, we were not just gathering facts to memorize. The learning we were getting was learning by doing. We didn't just learn that young mother Catherine Kelly Stevens died an untimely death in 1884; we found her headstone placed, not in a grave designated for the Stevens family, but in the family plot of her father's family—revealing the suddenness of the tragedy which befell a young father unprepared for such a turn of events. We saw the grayness of the simple cabins where the extended family lived, so close to the railroad tracks which provided their lifelong livelihood—and, in some cases, the source of their untimely deaths.

That is the muscle memory way to learn family history. When you can go and do the research in person, you come away with a very different type of life story than you can in a computer-assisted document search. Sure, you can use the one to assist you in completing the other, but one without the other yields, in my estimation, an incomplete picture. Just going back to review the documents I gleaned from those visits evokes the experience for me all over again. There is no doubt that is the reason I can so strongly recall details about the families for whom I completed those hands-on research investigations at the beginning. They are not just facts in my head; they were life stories whose very trail I traced with my own eyes, hands and feet.

I heartily urge researchers to not stop short, having found a way to digitally construct that paper trail of your ancestors. Don't be satisfied with merely cataloging names, dates, and places. Go walk the paths your ancestors once walked. Feel what it is like to have been there. When your great-greats get into your muscle memory, their memory will live on in an entirely different way than it could when the only token of their existence was merely a name typed on a piece of paper. 


  1. There's a townland in Killeentierna called Currabanefield. I think this is Currow and Barnfield

  2. Good advice:) Happy Father's Day to your husband:)


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