via Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: Confabulation

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 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 statements about what they perceive or remember. The narratives are known to be either completely fictional or in great part fantasy, but they are believed to be true by the patients.

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.

You might think: poor fellow; he has to construct his memories and fill in the blank parts with stuff he makes up. Yes, he does. But so do you, and so do I. There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on memory that shows memories are constructed by all of us 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.

Now there is a body of growing scientific research that shows confabulation is not something restricted to psychiatric patients or gifted fantasizers who believe they were abducted by aliens for reproductive surgery. 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 why we made a judgment that we made 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.

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