Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation

by Bob Schwartz

What if someone lies in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence? What if that person really believes what he is saying?

Confabulation is the construction of false answers to a question while genuinely believing that you are telling the truth.

This mysterious phenomenon usually accompanies neurological or cognitive disorders, and the puzzle of it has been the subject of some study among researchers. In his book Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, William Hirstein takes this study further than it has gone before:

“Both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, William Hirstein writes from his unique vantage point with great scholarship, precision, and clarity to tackle some of the deeper mysteries of the human mind. Brain Fiction is full of profound insights, and I recommend it to all who wish to better understand our human nature.”

—Fredric Schiffer, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Of Two Minds

Here is a description of the book:

Some neurological patients exhibit a striking tendency to confabulate—to construct false answers to a question while genuinely believing that they are telling the truth. A stroke victim, for example, will describe in detail a conference he attended over the weekend when in fact he has not left the hospital. Normal people, too, sometimes have a tendency to confabulate; rather than admitting “I don’t know,” some people will make up an answer or an explanation and express it with complete conviction. In Brain Fiction, William Hirstein examines confabulation and argues that its causes are not merely technical issues in neurology or cognitive science but deeply revealing about the structure of the human intellect.

Hirstein describes confabulation as the failure of a normal checking or censoring process in the brain—the failure to recognize that a false answer is fantasy, not reality. Thus, he argues, the creative ability to construct a plausible-sounding response and some ability to check that response are separate in the human brain. Hirstein sees the dialectic between the creative and checking processes—”the inner dialogue”—as an important part of our mental life. In constructing a theory of confabulation, Hirstein integrates perspectives from different fields, including philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology to achieve a natural mix of conceptual issues usually treated by philosophers with purely empirical issues; information about the distribution of certain blood vessels in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, for example, or the behavior of split-brain patients can shed light on the classic questions of philosophy of mind, including questions about the function of consciousness. This first book-length study of confabulation breaks ground in both philosophy and cognitive science.

A sample chapter can be read here. A couple of brief excerpts:

Why then does confabulation happen? Confabulation seems to involve two sorts of errors. First, a false response is created. Second, having thought of or spoken the false response, the patient fails to check, examine it and recognize its falsity. A normal person, we want to say, would notice the falsity or absurdity of such claims. The patient should have either not created the false response or, having created it, should have censored or corrected it. We do this sort of censoring in our normal lives. If I ask you whether you have ever been to Siberia, for instance, an image might appear in your mind of you wearing a thick fur coat and hat and braving a snowy storm, but you know that this is fantasy, not reality. In very general terms, the confabulating patient lacks the ability to assess his or her situation, and to either answer correctly, or respond that he or she does not know. Apparently, admitting ignorance in response to a question, rather than being an indication of glibness and a low level of function, is a high-level cognitive ability, one that confabulators have lost. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ can be an intelligent answer to a question, or at least an answer indicative of good cognitive health….

Young children sometimes confabulate when asked to recall events. Ackil and Zaragoza (1998) showed first-graders a segment of a film depicting a boy and his experiences at summer camp. Afterward the children were asked questions about it, including questions about events that did not happen in the film. One such question was, ‘‘What did the boy say Sullivan had stolen?’’ when in fact no thefts had taken place in the film. The children were pressed to give some sort of answer, and the experimenters often suggested an answer. When the children were interviewed a week later, the false events as well as the suggested answers had been incorporated into their recollections of the movie.

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