Confabulation (Definition #3)

May 9, 2006

Confabulation is what happens when your imagination works with your memory to generate a story, in particular it is the confusion of imagined details with true events. The interesting thing about confabulation is that you cannot avoid it. Imagination and memory are two heads of the same coin. Every time you access a memory, your brain will load it up into the imagination, fill in any missing details, and re-write it back into memory. As a result, stories will change and crystalize over time. In addition to this imagination/memory link, there are a couple other interesting processes at work here:

Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons our one of our brain's greatest inventions. They allow us to learn from other people's successes and failures without having to experience them directly. Your brain stores details about stories heard from others (depending on your level of empathy) in the same way that it stores facts about things you saw and experienced personally. Have you ever told a story that you thought happened to you only to realize later that it had actually happened to someone else and you had in fact related to it to the extent of adopting it as your own, unintentionally?

Choice blindness. We are often not given direct access to the reasons we act the way we do. We will sometimes say something we do not want to say, or choose something based on a "gut feeling" or and impulse. One of the most active portions of our conscious mind is its ability to attach stories to our behavior… to explain it both to ourselves and to others. Choice blindess is a psychology term coined by Petter Johansson to explain the slight confabulation that must occur whenever we attempt to explain why we chose something that we do not know exactly why we chose.

Confabulation is a wonderful thing. Confabulation is nothing to feel guilty about… it's more of a revelation than a confession to realize just how integral our imaginations are in processing and relating stories and experiences in our daily life. Enjoy your own confabulation, and the confabulation of others… it makes life feel a little more playful.

If you're interested in reading more about confabulation:


2 Responses to “Confabulation (Definition #3)”

  1. Mr Angry Says:

    Oliver Sacks has a fascinating analysis of this in his book “Uncle Tungsten”. He “remembered” a thermite bomb exploding outside his house during WWII but some parts of what he remembered were wrong. After discussing it with his brother he realised he wasn’t even there. He was remembering what his brother had described and over the years had come to think it was his own memory.

    The tricks the mind plays on us!

  2. Pronoia Says:

    Great story, Mr. Angry. :) I want to start asking people about this but it’s really tough to know when your story is mis-remembered… that’s part of why it happens I guess. I’m going to add an exercise in a bit to retell childhood stories, and I think those are great candidates for comfabulation just because they’ve probably been told many times and can also be verified or falsified by our siblings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: