Aug 102012

Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wenger (“Google Effects on Memory:Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at our Fingertips”)  suggest that “the Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”    Their studies, while not specifically about genealogy or family history, indicate what most geneabloggers understand either explicitly or intuitively — namely, that the explosion of available information on the Internet has changed the way we do genealogical research.  No, we still have to go to county court houses and cemeteries for a lot of basic information; but increasingly those court houses and cemeteries are putting their records online.

1. Off-loading memory to the Internet

Because we have off loaded so much data to the internet we tend to be able to spend more brain time for significant thinking.  I no longer have to remember everyone’s phone number because they are all stored in my cell phone’s memory and in my online Contacts file. This all has paved the way for the brain to reorient its memory system from content to process. Now, instead of remembering all the facts, I have learned to remember how to access the facts.

I regularly get feeds from about 85 genealogy blogs. Do I get from them information about members of my family tree? No! Do I read and inwardly digest each post from the 85? No! I scan them looking for interesting information about standards and procedures — that is, about how I can more effectively access information about members of my family tree.  If someone blogs about their family and simply offers an Ahnentafel chart, I am not very interested unless my family connects with theirs.  If, however, they write about developing their research plan for identifying new locations to search for information about their ancestors, I will read their post with great interest.

The Sparrow/Liu/Wenger study reports that ” believing the information was saved externally enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed, at least in general.” Blogging, therefore, provides at least two primary services:  1) to publish data from one’s research for a) oneself, b) one’s family, and c) extended family (“cousins”) and 2) to chronicle methods, procedures, clues, hints, learning, etc., that have been a part of one’s research and discovery.  This latter function is a service to the broader genealogical community. Blogging, therefore, tends to enhance our confidence in the general ability to access and retrieve information, much more than it enhances memory of the information that we have reported.

 2. A New Approach to Intimacy,  Friendship, and Collegiality

Stefana Broadbent (digital ethnographer at University College London) speaks about “How The Internet Enables Intimacy.”  Some have suggested that texting, Facebook, IM, etc., are having a negative impact on human intimacy.  Broadbent’s research suggests just the opposite:  contemporary technology has enhanced our capacity to cultivate deeper relationships.  Friends and family members separated by distance or institutional barriers (workplace or school, for example) have the means to be more refularly in contact with one another.  Moreover, the Internet provides a vehicle for broadening the base of contacts (e.g., number of “friends” on Facebook or number of people in “circles” on Google+).  Research shows that we tend to only be actively engaged in regular communication with a very limited number of them, likely only 3-5. That regular communication may be via IM, email, Skype, et al.  The broader base of contacts, however, does provide opportunity to increase our friendships.

Because of my blogging,  l would count Thomas McEntee, Randy Seaver, and Jill Ball as friends.  No, they are not intimate friends, but if we are at a conference together I will seek them out because they are important to me.  Two years ago, at my first genealogy conference, I was on my way seeking out Thomas.  Before I could introduce myself to him, he reached out his hand and said “Bart Brenner, it’s good to meet you.”  At RootsTech 2012 Randy and I encountered one another in the Exhibit Hall.  That lead to a discussion about the Presbyterian Church (Randy’s a Ruling Elder; I’m a Teaching Elder).  Jill and I had corresponded by email a couple of times prior to RootsTech.  What a delight to meet her in person and to have her introduce me (as GeneaPopPop)  to Audrey Collins and Amy Coffin.  Intimates, no: but genea-friends, decidely yes! Also, because of my online presence I have become colleagues with “cousins” that I never knew I had. Arlene and I have worked together to identify our common Brenner 3g and 4g grandparents.  Deb (we are connected through collateral Messeralls) rescued my 2g grandmother’s family Bible from a local historical society museum and provided me with photos of all the inscribed pages.

The website that my son and I maintain has provided my with a genealogical presence in cyberspace; but it is mostly a presence of data.  My blogging, on the other hand, has given my presence personality and character. And, that blogging presence causes me to reflect regularly upon my research and the information generated by that research (and, of course, it gives me a platform to think out loud as I am doing in this post. My relational network has definitely expanded, and all to the best, because of my presence on the Web.

 3. Feeding Our Need for Achievement & Social Recognition

Many bloggers are participating in the Summer Genea-Blogger Group Games (or Genea-Lympics, as Randy Seaver calls them).  I participated in a similar experience during the last Winter Olympics.  A variety of tasks which are central to genealogical research are entered as “contests” (with the caveat that participants are competing against their on expectations and each contestant is his/her own judge) — “Cite Your Sources;” “Back UpYour Data;” Organize Your Data;” “Write, Write, Write;” and “Reach Out & Perform Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.”  When I participated, I got a lot of basic “catch up” work done.  The “games” provided an opportunity to do those tasks I knew I should be doing (but wasn’t doing as much as I could).  They fed my “need for achievement” and make me accountable to myself for that achievement.  In addition, I was able to award myself Bronze, Silver, Gold, Diamond, and Platinum medals to acknowledge those achievements.  Because this was all done “in the open” — that is, reported in blog posts, the accomplishments and the Badges! Badges! Badges! provided some measure of social recognition.  Likewise, I was able to share in the recognition of the accomplishments of other competitors.

Each of us has a differing level of need for achievement and recognition.  It seems pretty clear to me that all of us geneabloggers have, at some level, acknoweldged those needs by the simple act of creating a blog.  The presence of the “Comment” function in our blogs recognizes the importance of our inter-connections with other genealogists and family historians.

4. Attention

The Sparrow/Liu/Wenger report concludes: “Finally, the individualized metrics available from computer teaching is what promises to have the greatest impact on the future of learning by keeping us in our seat and paying attention. The frontal cortex and other specific brain regions are active when we pay in attention in ways that help us learn. Our attention is fickle, and the right challenge at the right time helps capture and channel that attention.”

I live in a retirement community that makes available to residents a computerized program for brain fitness. We have learned that old age and decreased brain functioning are not necessarily synonymous.  “Use it or lose it” is the best motto regarding brain function  for seniors. In some ways geneablogging might be considered analogous to brain fitness programs for seniors.  Geneablogging is one of the tools for keeps us “in our seat and paying attention.”  The previously mentioned Genea-Lympics provide participants with activities that help us “pay attention in ways that help us learn.”  Geneablogging is, at its roots, an activity of attentiveness.

 5. Research Plans, To-Do Lists, Wikis, and Cheat Sheets

Sparrow/Liu/Wenger report that “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.

Some of us will do the vast majority of our genealogical research online and at the local library and the local Family History Center without many having many opportunities to visit county court houses and cemeteries where we could find more information about our ancestors.  Fortunately, more and more data is being brought online; and, if you can get it online, you don’t need to take the time to use it at a repository.  Instead we go to FamilySearch,, Fold 3, Google Books, BYU online library, … So, we develop tools to assist us in accessing the information. Data storage, once we find the information, has become relatively easy.  There are desktop software packages (Roots Magic, The Master Genealogist, Legacy, Behold, et al) and online sites (WeRelate, WikiTree, MyHeritage, FamilySearch,, et al) that provide increasingly sophisticated storage systems for genealogical data. Most of us have learned how to maneuver our data through one or more of these systems.  The key, especially for those of us who are not professional genealogists, is the variety of resources we use to help us find and access the information that will eventually be entered into our desktop and/or online software. The key to enhancing genealogical brain functioning is to “become [increasingly] symbiotic with our computer tools” while growing in our ability to understand and access the interconnected systems that are available to us.

Over the past year there have been a couple of discussions including a number of geneabloggers about the genealogical “community” (if, indeed, there is such a community).  I would contend that the” interconnected systems … where [genealogical] information can be found” and the variety of interconnections between those of us who are accessing those information systems (by writing and/or reading blogs) is what the genealogical community is all about.  Like “intimacy, friendship, and collegiality” each of us has a unique set of relationships with the genealogical community and we each value those relationships differently.

So, does geneablogging enhance brain functioning?  I think it does! To paraphrase one initial observation from Sparrow/Liu/Wenger, geneablogging (like the Internet itself) “has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.” I like to think of geneablogging as a function of “transactive” memory — that is, each geneablogger participates in a brain function (i.e., memory) transaction between his/her research, her/himself, other geneabloggers, and readers.  And I think that is rather impressive.


  One Response to “How Geneablogging Enhances Brain Functioning”

  1. Bart,

    I started reading through your post and nodding away until I got to Section 2 then I got goosebumps. Thank you for mentioning me. It was the camaderie from fellow geneabloggers that made me feel like part of the crowd at Rootstech. Sometimes I go to conferences and feel left right out because I don’t know anyone there.

    The relationships I have developed with fellow geneablogers like you are very special to me.

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