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confabulation

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. --David Dunning

Confabulation is an unconscious process of creating a narrative that is believed to be true by the narrator but is demonstrably false. The term is popular in psychiatric circles to describe narratives of patients with brain damage or a psychiatric disorder who make up stories about what they perceive or remember, stories that are known to be either completely fictional or in great part fantasy but which are put forth confidently as accurate and truthful.

Confabulation, however, is not restricted to psychiatric patients or people with serious memory problems due to such things as trauma or Alzheimers. We all confabulate at times. Have you ever told a story that you embellished by putting yourself at the center when you knew that you weren’t even there? Or have you ever been absolutely sure you remembered something correctly, only to be shown incontrovertible evidence that your memory was wrong? No, of course not. But you probably know or have heard of somebody else who juiced up a story with made-up details or whose confidence in his memory was shown to be undeserved by evidence that his memory was false. 

Confabulation is such a well-known phenomenon that even talk show hosts exploit this unconscious self-ignorance we all have regarding our urge to make stuff up. Social psychologist David Dunning, a professor at Cornell University, writes about confabulation without using the word in an article entitled "We Are All Confident Idiots." Dunning begins his piece with an account of a feature on the Jimmie Kimmel Live! show called “Lie Witness News” in which people are interviewed on the street about fictional events or persons. The interviewers ask questions like 'Does Bill Clinton gets enough credit for ending the Korean War?' or 'Will Clinton's appearance as a judge on America’s Got Talent damage his legacy?' Apparently enough people answer these and many similar ridiculous questions to fill up a chunk of time on the talk show and give many people a good laugh at how stupid other people are.

'Confabulation' is often used to describe the "memories" of people claiming to have been abducted by aliens as well as false memories induced by therapists or interviewers. The former often involve 'memories' of reproductive surgery on space ships, while the latter often involve memories of sexual abuse or bizarre satanic rituals.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of a patient with a brain disorder that prevented him from forming new memories. Even though “Mr. Thompson” could not remember who Sacks was, each time Sacks visited him he created a fictional narrative about their previous encounters. Sometimes Sacks was a butcher Thompson knew when he worked as a grocer. A few minutes later, he’d recognize Sacks as a customer and create a new fictional narrative. Sacks described Thompson’s confabulations as an attempt to make meaning out of perceptions that he could only relate to events in long-term memory. Brain damage had rendered his short-term memory nearly non-existent.

Mr. Thompson might arouse our sympathy because he has to make an effort to construct his memories on the fly. The fact is, however, that there is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on memory that shows memories are constructed and that the construction is a mixture of fact and fiction. Something similar is true for perception. Our perceptions are constructions that are a mixture of sense data processed by the brain and other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks. Sacks has also written about patients who are paralyzed or blind but who deny their impairment in elaborate confabulations.

Not only do people with brain injuries that leave them paralyzed or blind invent stories that explain why they can't move a limb or see without admitting to their disability, perfectly healthy individuals make up stories with minimal provocation. And you don't have to put people in front of a TV camera or a suggestive interviewer to get them to claim to know what they can't know.

Studies on choice blindness demonstrate that people who make stuff up often aren’t even aware of it and really believe the falsehoods they utter. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden showed males two pictures of female faces and asked them which one they found more attractive. The men were then asked why they chose the one they did. The photos were then turned face down and a trick was played on the subjects. One of the photos was turned over and sometimes the photo turned over was not the one the male selected. Yet, in a majority of the trials the subject didn’t even notice the switch (change blindness) and proceeded to provide details as to why he selected the one he didn’t actually select. The majority of subjects are known to have confabulated. But it is possible that they all did. 

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are famous for having discovered that many of us answer an easier question than the one that is posed. These subjects were asked which female face they found more attractive. As far as I know, there was no attempt on the part of the researchers to discover what criteria the subjects would use to determine how they measure attractiveness in females. It is likely that most of us have no problem deciding whether we find a person attractive, but how many of us have ever reflected on the criteria we use in making that decision? If there is just one photo to look at, most of us would instantly decide whether the face is attractive. But would we know why we feel the way we do? Our brain must have gone through some sort of decision-making process in an instant. What data our brain was using to arouse our feelings is unknown to us at the moment we decide that the face is or isn’t attractive. The same would be true for making a comparison between two faces. We might do it instantly and there is no way we could be conscious of the criteria our brain is using to drive our feelings. So, when asked why we find face A more attractive than face B, we make stuff up. 

For all we know, when asked which face is more attractive, we answer not that question but another one such as “which girl would I want to kiss” or “which girl looks friendlier” or “which girl would be more likely to find me attractive.” Yet, when we give our reasons for our choice to the experimenter, we may say things like “She has a lovely smile. Her hairdo is very nice. She looks like she’d be fun to party with. She reminds me of some actress I like.” The actual reasons for our choice may or may not coincide with what we say, and we usually have no way of knowing whether we’re telling the truth even though we believe we are. We might state what we think a heterosexual male should say when describing a female as attractive rather than state or even know why we really find one face more attractive than another. 

The researchers who did the study on face choices also did a study called “Magic at the Marketplace: Choice Blindness for the Taste of Jam and the Smell of Tea.” Many people had no problem explaining why they favored a jam even though when given a second taste of what they thought was the one they selected, it wasn’t the one they'd selected. Several other studies have found that confabulation is rather common among us ordinary folk who have not yet been diagnosed with a brain disorder. 

William Hirstein puts it this way in Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation: confabulation is not just a deficit of memory; it is something anybody might do, even people with perfectly fine memories and healthy brains. We know that children and many adults confabulate when encouraged to talk about things of which they have no knowledge. We know that eyewitnesses can be influenced by suggestive inquiries to confabulate. Even so, most of the study on confabulation has been done on unhealthy minds, rather than healthy ones. But this is changing.

Hirstein's Brain Fiction reviews a body of growing scientific research that shows confabulation is not something restricted to psychiatric patients or gifted fantasizers. The evidence shows that many of the narratives each of us produce on a daily basis to explain how we feel, why we did something, or how we made a judgment are confabulations, mixtures of fact and fiction that we believe to be completely true. 

This research should give us pause. Many of us accuse others of making stuff up when they present arguments that are demonstrably full of false or questionable claims, but it’s possible that people who make stuff up aren’t even aware of it. They might really believe the falsehoods they utter. 

Perhaps we make up stories that seem plausible to us, even though we don’t really have a clue as to their accuracy, for the same reason that Mr. Thompson did. We confabulate to make sense out of our experience, our feelings, our perceptions, and our memories. Unlike Mr. Thompson, though, most of us have healthy brains that can access vast quantities of recent data in an instant, but these brain processes are taking place below the level of consciousness. We’re often not really aware of why we’re constructing the stories we do. 

It may be hard to believe but the evidence is overwhelming that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.

See also alien abduction, false memory, memory, and retrospective falsification.


further reading

books and articles

Dunning, David. 2014. We Are All Confident Idiots. Pacific Standard.

Hirstein, William. (2005). Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation. MIT Press.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011.Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Mlodinow, Leonard. 2012. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Pantheon.

Phillips, Helen. 2006. Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales. New Scientist. Oct. 4.

Ramachandran, V.S. and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain (Quill William Morrow, 1998).

Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).

Sacks, Oliver W. The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales (New York : Summit Books, 1985).

Sacks, Oliver W. A leg to stand on (New York : Summit Books, 1984).

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory : How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001).

websites

"The Eyes that Spoke," by Martin Kottmeyer A case history of confabulation.

The Choice Blindness lab

blog

Mind Hacks - Researchers implant false symptoms: An intriguing study just published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology has found that we can be convinced we reported symptoms of mental illness that we never mentioned and, as a result, we can actually start believing we have the symptom itself.Last updated 31-Aug-2015

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