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In psychology, Confabulation is the spontaneous narrative report of events that never happened. It consists of the creation of false memories, perceptions, or beliefs about the self or the environment usually as a result of neurological or psychological dysfunction.[1] When it is a matter of memory, confabulation is the confusion of imagination with memory, or the confused application of true memories.[2] Confabulations are difficult to differentiate from delusions and from lying.[3]


Organic causes

Berlyne (1972) defined confabulation as "...a falsification of memory occurring in clear consciousness in association with an organically derived amnesia." He distinguished between:

  • "momentary" (or "provoked") confabulations – fleeting, and invariably provoked by questions probing the subject's memory, sometimes consisting of "real" memories displaced in their temporal context.
  • "fantastic" (or "spontaneous") confabulations – characterised by the spontaneous outpouring of irrelevant associations, sometimes bizarre ideas, which may be held with firm conviction.

Patients who have suffered brain damage or lesions, especially to the prefrontal cortical regions, may have confabulation of memories as a symptom. Patients with Korsakoff's syndrome characteristically confabulate by guessing an answer or imagining an event and then mistaking their guess or imagination for an actual memory. In some cases, confabulation is a function of the brain's chemistry, a mapping of the activation of neurons to brain activity.[4][5] Confabulation can also occur as a result of damage to the anterior communicating artery (ACoA), in the Circle of Willis. Patients with a split-brain will confabulate under experimental conditions.

Some military agents, such as BZ, and deliriant drugs such as those found in datura, notably scopolamine and atropine, may also cause confabulation.

Psychological causes

Bartlett's[6] early 20th century studies of remembering are arguably the first concerted attempt to look at the memory-illusion phenomena. In one experiment, he asked a group of students to read an Indian folktale and then recall its details at various time intervals. As well as errors of omission, interestingly he found numerous errors of commission whereby participants had adapted or added to the story to make it more rational or consistent.

In the 1970s a number of researchers and theories promoted what has been called the constructivist view of memory, maintaining that reasoning influences memory, in contrast to a prevailing view at the time that memory supports reasoning.[7] Theorists such as Bransford and Franks[8] noted the significance of personal beliefs and desires, or more technically scripts and schemas, in memory retrieval.

Constructivism has fallen out of favor recently due to the contention that it is either false or untestable.[9] Memory is presumably not always reconstructive, since most is patently veridical. Constructivism cannot simply be rephrased as the thesis that memory is not always reproductive. As Reyna and Lloyd[9] point out, this amounts to the claim that memory is sometimes reproductive and sometimes reconstructive – which is unexplanatory and unfalsifiable. Because of this a number of current theories focus on how normally accurate memory systems sometimes fail. Notably, both the source-monitoring framework[10] and fuzzy trace theory[7] purport to indicate when false memories are likely to occur, and also to give a more detailed explanation than either reproductive or constructivist views.

Source monitoring is the process by which we discriminate between internally and externally derived memory sources as well as differentiations within the external and internal domains – differentiating between two external sources or between internal sources, for instance between what was said and what was thought. The theory postulates that these decisions are made based on the characteristics of memories compared to norms for memories for different sources, such as the proportions of perceptual, contextual, affective, and semantic information featured in the encoding of the memory. Under the source-monitoring framework false memory is seen as a failure to attribute information to the correct source. This happens when there is insufficient information available to discriminate between different sources (perhaps because of natural deterioration), or when the wrong criterion is used to discriminate. For example, a doctor might mistakenly think a patient is on a specific medicine because he was discussing the medicine with a colleague shortly after seeing the patient.

Fuzzy trace theory is based on the assumption that memory is not stored in unitary form. Instead memories are encoded at a number of levels, from an exact "verbatim" account, to "gist" which represents what we feel or felt was the overall meaning of the event.[9] False memory effects are usually (but not always) explained as a reliance on gist traces in a situation when verbatim traces are needed. Because of this people may mistakenly recall a memory that only goes along with a vague gist of what happened, rather than the exact course of events. Three reasons are proposed: First, there is thought to be a general bias towards the use of gist traces in cognition due to their resource efficiency,[7] and people will tend to use gist traces when they seem sufficient. Second, verbatim traces are said to be inherently less stable than gist traces, and decay faster.[7] Third, in the process of forgetting, memories fragment and gist and verbatim traces can become independent.[9]

See also


  1. ^ "Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales", New Scientist, October 7, 2006
  2. ^ confabulation. (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved January 01, 2008, from website
  3. ^ Berrios G.E. (1999) Confabulations: a conceptual history. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 7: 225-241.
  4. ^ "A Quantitative Model of Seminal Cognition: The Creativity Machine Paradigm (US Patent 5,659,666)". 
  5. ^ "Confabulation theory — Scholarpedia". 
  6. ^ Bartlett, F., Remembering: a study in experimental and social psychology, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1932
  7. ^ a b c d Reyna, V. F. & Brainerd, C. J., "Fuzzy trace theory: an interim synthesis", Learning and individual differences, 7, 1–75, 1995
  8. ^ Bransford, J. D. & Franks, J., "The abstraction of linguistic ideas", Cognitive Psychology, 2, 331–350., 1971
  9. ^ a b c d Reyna, V. F. & Lloyd, F., "Theories of false memory in children and adults", Learning individual differences, 9 (2), 95–123, 1997
  10. ^ Johnson, Hashtroudi & Lindsay, "Source monitoring" Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3–28, 1993


  • Hirstein, William (2004). Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-58271-1. 
  • Kalat, J. W., (2002). Biological Psychology (8th ed). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Stedman, T. L. (2000, January 15). Stedman's Medical Dictionary (27th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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