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Confabulation, also known as false memory is the confusion of imagination with memory, and/or the confusion of true memories with false memories. [1] Confabulation can result from both organic and psychological causes.[2]

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. [3] Confabulation can also occur as a result of damage to the Anterior communicating artery (ACoA), in the Circle of Willis.

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

Psychological causes

Bartlett’s [4] studies of remembering are arguably the first concerted attempt to look at memory illusions phenomena. In one experiment, he asked a group of students to read in Indian folktale and then recall that 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 started to emphasise what has been called the constructivist view of memory, maintaining that reasoning influences memory, in contrast to the prevailing view at the time which was that memory is essential for proper reasoning [5]. Theorists such as Bransford and Franks [6] noted the significance of personal beliefs and desires, or more technically scripts and schemas, in memory retrieval.

Constructivism has fallen out of fashion recently due to the contention that it is either false or un-testable [7]. Memory is presumably not always reconstructive as the considerable evidence of its veridical quality is testament. Constructivism cannot simply be rephrased as the thesis that memory is not always reproductive. As Reyna and Lloyd[7] point out, this amounts to the claim that memory is sometimes reproductive and sometimes reconstructive; which is unexplanatory and unfalsefiable as any result can be accommodated post hoc. Because of this a number of theories have now been advanced which instead focus on the mechanism by which an essentially accurate memory system can sometimes produce erroneous results. Notably, both source monitoring framework [8] and fuzzy-trace theory [5] purport to both indicate when false memories are likely to occur and give a more detailed explanatory account than either reproductive or constructivist views.

Source monitoring refers to the process by which we discriminate between internally and externally derived memory sources as well as differentiations within the external and external 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 they were discussing the medicine with a colleague shortly after seeing them.

Fuzzy trace theory is based on the assumption that memory is not stored in unitary form. Instead memories are encoded on a number of levels, from an exact ‘verbatim’ account, to ‘gist’ which represents the overall meaning of the event[7]. 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. Essentially there are three reasons why people might do this. There is thought to be a general bias towards the use of gist traces in cognition due to their resource efficiency [5] and people will tend to use gist traces when it is thought that they will be adequate to satisfy the demands of the situation. Second, verbatim traces are said to be inherently less stable than gist and decay quicker [5]. Finally, during the course of forgetting memories fragment and gist and verbatim can become independent[7].

See also


  1. confabulation. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved January 01, 2008, from website
  2. "Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales", New Scientist, October 7, 2006
  3. Confabulation theory - Scholarpedia
  4. Bartlett, F., Remembering: a study in experimental and social psychology, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1932
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Reyna, V. F. & Brainerd, C. J., Fuzzy trace theory: an interim synthesis. Learning and individual differences, 7, 1-75, 1995
  6. Bransford, J. D. & Franks, J., The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive Psychology, 2, 331-350., 1971
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Reyna, V. F. & Lloyd, F., Theories of false memory in children and adults. Learning individual differences, 9 (2), 95-123, 1997
  8. 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.

Further reading

  • Amnestic-confabulatory syndrome in hydrocephalic dementia and Korsakoff's psychosis in alcoholism. (1979). Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Vol 60(4) Oct 1979, 323-333.
  • Ackil, J. K., & Zaragoza, M. S. (1998). Memorial consequences of forced confabulation: Age differences in susceptibility to false memories: Developmental Psychology Vol 34(6) Nov 1998, 1358-1372.
  • Anastasi, J. S. (2006). Understanding confabulation: A multidisciplinary approach: Applied Cognitive Psychology Vol 20(2) Mar 2006, 277-278.
  • Baddeley, A., & Wilson, B. (1986). Amnesia, autobiographical memory, and confabulation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Barba, G. D. (1993). Different patterns of confabulation: Cortex Vol 29(4) Dec 1993, 567-581.
  • Baxter, J. S. (1990). Children as eyewitnesses: A developmental study: Dissertation Abstracts International.
  • Benson, D. F., Djenderedjian, A., Miller, B. L., Pachana, N. A., & et al. (1996). Neural basis of confabulation: Neurology Vol 46(5) May 1996, 1239-1243.
  • Bergman, E. T., & Roediger, H. L., III. (1999). Can Bartlett's repeated reproduction experiments be replicated? : Memory & Cognition Vol 27(6) Nov 1999, 937-947.
  • Berrios, G. E. (1998). Confabulations: A conceptual history: Journal of the History of the Neurosciences Vol 7(3) Dec 1998, 225-241.
  • Berrios, G. E. (2000). Confabulations. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bickle, J. (2005). Review of Brain Fiction: Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol 12(7) Jul 2005, 87-88.
  • Birnberg, J. D. (2000). The ecology of confabulation: Deviant responses in the Rorschach sequence. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering.
  • Blechner, M. J. (2000). Confabulation in dreaming, psychosis, and brain injury: Comment: Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 2(2) 2000, 139-144.
  • Blechner, M. J. (2004). Commentary on "The Pleasantness of False Beliefs": Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 6(1) 2004, 16-20.
  • Blechner, M. J. (2007). "Confabulation in dementia: Constantly compensating memory systems": Commentary: Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 9(1) 2007, 17-22.
  • Box, O., Laing, H., & Kopelman, M. (1999). The evolution of spontaneous confabulation, delusional misidentification and a related delusion in a case of severe head injury: Neurocase Vol 5(3) 1999, 251-262.
  • Brodsky, S. L. (1999). Confabulations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Brugger, P., & Funk, M. (2007). Out on a limb: Neglect and confabulation in the study of aplasic phantoms. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Buck, J. A., Warren, A. R., Betman, S. I., & Brigham, J. C. (2002). Age differences in Criteria-Based Content Analysis scores in typical child sexual abuse interviews: Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology Vol 23(3) May-Jun 2002, 267-283.
  • Burgess, P. W., & Shallice, T. (1996). Confabulation and the Control of Recollection: Memory Vol 4(4) Jul 1996, 359-411.
  • Canestri, J. (2000). "A cognitive neuroscience perspective on confabulation": Comment: Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 2(2) 2000, 144-148.
  • Ciaramelli, E., & Ghetti, S. (2007). What are confabulators' memories made of? A study of subjective and objective measures of recollection in confabulation: Neuropsychologia Vol 45(7) 2007, 1489-1500.
  • Ciaramelli, E., Ghetti, S., Frattarelli, M., & Ladavas, E. (2006). When true memory availability promotes false memory: Evidence from confabulating patients: Neuropsychologia Vol 44(10) 2006, 1866-1877.
  • Clare, I. C., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (1993). Interrogative suggestibility, confabulation, and acquiescence in people with mild learning disabilities (mental handicap): Implications for reliability during police interrogations: British Journal of Clinical Psychology Vol 32(3) Sep 1993, 295-301.
  • Cooper, J. M., Shanks, M. F., & Venneri, A. (2006). Provoked confabulations in Alzheimer's disease: Neuropsychologia Vol 44(10) 2006, 1697-1707.
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