Photo Credit to Thomas Keller, Spanglish, and MCMLXXX

Failed Mind: Why Memory Can’t Be Trusted


I love the movie Spanglish. Have you seen it? Adam Sandler portrays a highly acclaimed chef, and Tea Leoni is smashing as his insanely neurotic wife. When my husband and I first watched it, we loved the scene where Adam Sandler comes home after a long day at his restaurant and makes himself a sandwich. But not just any sandwich. This sandwich is on grilled sourdough, with thinly sliced turkey, a slab of tomato and perfectly fanned avocado to dress the top. The “piece de resistance” is a sunny-side up egg placed gently atop this open-faced miracle.

Brent and I talked about that sandwich to the point I finally decided to recreate it. (This was back when I, on occasion, would allow gluten and dairy past my lips.) The experiment took a few attempts, but on the third time this sandwich came out so worthy it disappeared within thirty seconds.

About two months ago I re-watched Spanglish, recalling how much I had enjoyed it. Then the sandwich scene came on. I was psyched.

Wait a minute…small problem

It was not Turkey; it was bacon

It was not avocado; it was butter lettuce

It was not sunny-side; it was over-easy

It was not open faced….

I was so sure I had remembered this creation accurately and yet I had incorrectly “recalled” about 70% of the components. I had operated on false data that I was convinced was true. Each time I had thought of that sandwich, it must have morphed and changed into something completely different. When I finally acted on my memory, the sandwich bore little resemblance to the original.

See the sandwich being made here.

I look for self-teaching moments in minutia. It is a pastime of mine.

In an article entitled, “Good With Faces, Bad With Names.” The author, Thomas DiMichele, discusses how we have plenty of long-term storage in our brains. Storage is not the issue. One of the main reasons I may not have been able to recall my sandwich is because of the bottleneck between short and long term memory where “discarding” occurs. During that transition, your mind picks out what it thinks is most relevant and important. It can’t stuff every detail through the bottleneck.

Thomas DiMichele also highlights some other memory issues. Our attention during the time the memory was made, our limited short-term memory, the rewiring of our brain when it encodes and processes information, and our subconscious and evolutionary selection hardwiring are all reasons we may not remember accurately. One of the most interesting memory transformers Thomas brings to our attention is the concept of “perception. He states that we take in a ton of information from our environment. We call this “sensory information”, and it gets stored in sensory memory. Unless we apply conscious thought to these “sensory” memory tidbits, each memory will decay within 1/5 of a second. That is a lot of decay! It is not a total loss, though. Some of that sensory data the subconscious will attach onto because the type of memory has been useful in the past. But if your conscious or subconscious mind doesn’t grab onto a particular memory, “poof”, it’s gone.

We also need to consider that what your subconscious chooses to grab is going to be very different based on your personal past experience. What my brain decides to edit and what your brain decides to edit may be very different! (Hello two people with vastly different memories of the same situation.)

There are other factors that affect how we remember things. Experts who study memory will tell you that emotions and subsequent events that surround the memory in question will have a dramatic effect on how we recall events. Other people’s suggestions or more recent experiences can also alter your memory of a particular event. (This is so fascinating!)

This brings me back to my sandwich.

My Spanglish sandwich made me realize that we cannot be trusted. Or at least our memories cannot be trusted. I have to ask myself, apart from movie sandwiches, what else have I “misremembered”? How many swords have I fallen on or judgments have I rendered based purely on false or distorted memory? Ugh. Unfortunately,  I can think of far too many choices and decisions that may have been driven by my subconsciously mutated version of the facts.

How powerful it would be to enter conflict or robust conversation knowing that how WE remember things is likely tainted by our own emotions and experience. Knowing this, what extended grace and forgiveness can we offer when coming to the table? Lordy, it even alleviates the need to be right, because with this fluctuation in memory none of us are likely truly right. I am confident Adam Sandler considered it just a sandwich. Not me, that sandwich taught me that memory is simply a construct and has so many influencers it cannot possibly trusted. But there is a real freedom in acknowledging our memory’s unique perspective. 

This week I want you to consider how often you might misremember a situation. How can knowing that this occurs affect how you move forward? Can you be more patient in understanding others viewpoints and opinions of a past situation? Can you be more forgiving for scenarios that might not have happened exactly as you recall?



Speaking of sandwiches, you should let me send you five Paleo recipes for free! 




THE ATLANTIC – How Many Of Your Memories Are Fake? 

DISCOVER MAGAZINE – How Much of Your Memory is True

FACTMYTH.COM – The Average Human Has An Accurate Memory

Photo Credit to Thomas Keller, Spanglish, and MCMLXXX