Blue and white clock from Beatrice Rasmussen, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

The Personal Historians Inside You

Wouldn’t it be fun to have a personal historian assigned to you, someone to capture the significant details of your life?

As it turns out, we each have several personal historians hitching a ride within our bodies.

One of these personal historians is memory, the neurological mechanism that allows us to remember what has happened over time. The constancy of memory helps to shape our personalities, keeps us from entering dangerous situations, and encourages us to seek enjoyable experiences.

Our brains serve as internal archives, with history recorded in our neurons. Just like in a museum archive, it can be difficult to track down a specific bit of information within your memory, but there’s loads of info stored there. And memory, like history, can be incomplete, lost, or even recorded inaccurately.

Another personal historian traveling with us is our DNA. Not only do we have nuclear DNA from both parents in each of our cells, we also have mitochondrial DNA that is distinct from nuclear DNA and is only inherited from our female ancestors.

If you’ve ever looked through photos of distant relatives and see the resemblance, that’s the DNA historian at work inside you, connecting you directly to your past lineage. Those connections can go further than appearance, affecting your health, lifespan, and other genetic traits.

Our memories and DNA are the most obvious personal historians residing in us, but there are at least a couple more to explore.

Our bodies directly hold history through injuries, disease, and repetitive use. I have a scar on my finger from where I cut myself falling down the stairs with scissors as a child. (No, I wasn’t running!)

My mom’s one leg is shorter than the other due to contracting polio in childhood. My dad also had polio as a kid and the toes on one foot were deformed. The affects of polio have played a role through the span of their lives.

I know a guy who wrenched his knee in the 1950s during a tobaggon run and that knee gives him problems to this day.

Our history shows in the wrinkles in our faces, surgery scars, tattoos, and ear piercings.

Entering the land of the weird, we come to the personal historians that are part of the microbiome that resides in our bodies. We have a variety of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. – that make their homes inside us, in many cases performing critical functions. All of these organisms have a history, arising as they do from other organisms, and they are along for the ride. (Research on the human microbiome is in its infancy, but the early studies are fascinating.)

As you can see, our bodies are hardwired for history, both physically and mentally. We’re born historians and history doesn’t get any more personal than this.

What experience did you have earlier in life shows up today within your body? Do you look strikingly like one of your relatives or inherit a trait from your family? If so, share in the comments if you are comfortable doing so.