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Using Memory Triggers to Gather Family Stories

Biff Barnes

Unlocking memories is a key to an interesting family history book. Gathering family lore and stories from older ancestors brings the past to life. That often means helping the relatives we’re working with to recall those stories.  

As Skip Rizzo of the USC School of Gerontology points out, “One key point to remember is that you have a whole library full of information and it will be a challenge for the brain to go back over 80 years of living, and always be able to find things quickly.”

He explains that a person’s memory is really a three part process. It involves:

  • Registration – getting the information in the first place
  • Retention – moving the information into storage in long term memory
  • Retrieval – accessing the stored information

When working with older relatives we’re dealing with the third of the three stages of memory.

As we are try to assist a relative in retrieving a memory part of what we need to do is help the person transport herself back to the time when the events occurred. Rizzo illustrates why, “How many of you go into one room to get something and then you forget why you are in that room? Well we all know that the best way to remember something is to go back where you started. With retrieval, if you go back to that room where you first had the thought, you re recreating the stimulus cues of the environment where you first had the thought. This re-energizes the brain and brings it right back to where you were mentally beforehand.”

How can we create this sort of mental time machine? Rizzo discusses three tools: imagery, association, and organization. The first two are particularly important for the family historian. “Imagery is the art of using your imagination it has to do with forming mental pictures mental snapshots, and it does not have to be just visual,” says Rizzo. “It can be auditory, it can be the sense of smell, touch and taste. You can use all five of your senses, and the idea here is to not just think of something in its language-based description but to form vivid mental pictures.”

Association involves using context by having people recall important national or world events to help transport themselves back to the time when important family events occurred. Once they are “back in the day” it’s easier to access the memories of what happened to them at the time.

Both imagery and association can be “triggered.” Looking at family photos or artifacts is an excellent memory trigger. Playing period music as a background for your conversation can evoke the time and memories you’re seeking to unlock. The sense of smell and taste are two of the most powerful memory triggers. Discussing food can lead to recall of stories. Asking a person to draw a map of their childhood home or neighborhood can stir memories of that place and time. Looking at a timeline with a relative can help them make personal associations with the events listed.

A family historian armed with some memory triggers to get a conversation started is more likely to successfully collect family stories than the one who arrives at a relative’s house with a detailed list of interview questions.

Click here to read Skip Rizzo’s article