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Confabulation!

June 4, 2011

I learned a new word today.

Chronic confabulation is a rare type of memory problem that affects a small proportion of brain-damaged people. In the literature it is defined as “the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive”. Whereas amnesiacs make errors of omission—there are gaps in their recollections they find impossible to fill—confabulators make errors of commission: they make things up. Rather than forgetting, they are inventing.

Confabulating patients are nearly always oblivious to their own condition, and will earnestly give absurdly implausible explanations of why they’re in hospital, or talking to a doctor. One patient, asked about his surgical scar, explained that during the second world war he surprised a teenage girl who shot him three times in the head, killing him, only for surgery to bring him back to life. The same patient, when asked about his family, described how at various times they had died in his arms, or had been killed before his eyes. Others tell yet more fantastical tales, about trips to the moon, fighting alongside Alexander in India or seeing Jesus on the Cross. Confabulators aren’t out to deceive. They engage in what Morris Moscovitch, a neuropsychologist, calls “honest lying”. Uncertain, and obscurely distressed by their uncertainty, they are seized by a “compulsion to narrate”: a deep-seated need to shape, order and explain what they do not understand.

In Lost in the Cosmos (which I just read), Walker Percy says that before the 20th century amnesia was rarely found interesting, but that modernity, because it is uneasy with its self, finds amnesia fascinating. In particular he looks at television, film, and literature: as the number of episodes of a television series increases, the chances that a character will have gotten amnesia at some point approaches one, and many movies (e.g. Memento, which I recommend to any who haven’t seen it) and books (e.g. Soldier of the Mist, which I also recommend) center around the trope.

Now I hear about “confabulation,” and wonder: why hasn’t it received similar literary attention? It seems just as apt as amnesia as a vehicle for postmodern meditations on self-definition. I’m sure there are some movies and books with characters who chronically confabulate, but it hasn’t seeped into the collective unconscious in the same way as amnesia. Why not?

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