Your Memory Sucks Donkey Bong (Or, “On The Importance Of Tasting Notes”)

Because I am divorcing someone at fault, I have been on the receiving end of revisionist history, even when it seeks to conform to a false, self-serving narrative of cognitive dissonance.

It turns out, however, that revisionism towards an agenda of mollifying cognitive dissonance (“yeah, I did that nasty sh*t, but I am different and it’s ok because…”) is actually one of the core elements of a properly functioning human memory.

As strange as this may sound initially, revisionist memory is the reason why I am always carrying around pen and notebook when tasting wine, my friends, and why I think that any budding wine nerd needs to do the same (or an equivalent) when they are getting serious about appreciating wine (let alone criticizing it). Because if you’re anything like the majority of the human population (and, trust me, you are), then your memory is… well… crap.

Not only is your memory poor at capturing actual details as they happened (this includes about wine), it is an ever-changing, malleable storytelling machine, constantly revising and rewriting history, filling in the blanks between factual details in order to preserve whatever narrative best reduces any dissonance between what actually went down, and your (most likely overly-inflated) internal view of your self…

What this means is that your memory of tasting a wine will, eventually, almost certainly conform to whatever scenario best suits your personal view of the situation in which you tasted it, and your subjective view of yourself in that situation.

If your aim is to objectively evaluate wine, or (more importantly) to accurately discern why you like/dislike the wines that you do, and the above doesn’t worry you a bit, then you are not paying enough attention.

If you think that everyone else is like that, but not you (admittedly, my initial reaction, too), then I think an example from Carol Tavris’s and Elliot Aronson’s excellent “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” is worth considering, in the hopes that it will give you a 2×4-to-the-face-style wake-up call (and have you reaching for a notebook and pen the next time that you taste some vino).

In that book, the authors recount a story from cognitive psychologist Ralph Haber. Haber recalls from memory that, years ago, he had to argue with his mother about attending graduate school at Stanford (where he recalls desperately wanting to go, as a mark of both academic excellence and as an opportunity to move away from home and become independent). In Haber’s recollection, his mother wanted him instead to attend nearby University of Michigan.

Fast forward about twenty-five years, when Haber was visiting his mother in Michigan for her then eightieth birthday. She gave him a box of letters that they had written between them over the previous years, and it was very clear from those written accounts that it was Haber who had wanted to stay in Michigan, and his mother who had passionately attempted to get him to change his mind. After rereading the letters (and bear in mind, he had himself written half of them), Haber admitted that he had unknowingly “rewritten the entire history of this conflicted choice so my memory came out consistent… with how I wanted to see myself – being able to leave home.”

Haber’s specialty in the field of cognitive psychology? Autobiographical memory. The one guy who should have known that he was susceptible to memory rewriting history? Yep, he let it happen anyway.

So will you.

When the shit hits the fan (and it will) and life gets tough (and it will), your mind will mess with your memory to suit whatever needs it has over time (yes, even yours).

The moral here is that even if your wine memory is amazing, you still need a backup, because that brainiac internal hard-drive of yours is going to get fragmented, and will fail, and it will do so in the very ways in which it is personally most difficult for you to realize that it is happening.

Take tasting notes, people, and save them. Then, prepare for the humbling experience of revisiting them, and truly knowing yourself.


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