Confabulation is a memory disorder that causes you to spontaneously create false memories and confuse your imagination with reality. This condition where your brain makes up incredibly-detailed lies that you believe are truths sounds like it was pulled from the pages of a Philip K. Dick novel. New Scientist magazine's cover story this week is about confabulation. Unfortunately, the article is behind a pay wall. Last month though, MIT Press published the first book to look at the condition--Brain Fiction: Self Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation by William Hirstein. The first chapter is available for free online and the opening paragraph instantly made me want to read the entire book. From Chapter 1:
A neurologist enters a hospital room and approaches an older man sitting up in bed. The neurologist greets him, examines his chart, and after a brief chat in which the man reports feeling fine, asks him what he did over the weekend. The man offers in response a long, coherent description of his going to a professional conference in New York City and planning a project with a large research team, all of which the doctor writes down. The only problem with this narration is that the man has been in the hospital the entire weekend, in fact for the past three months. What is curious is that the man is of sound mind, yet genuinely believes what he is saying. When the doctor informs him that he is mistaken, he replies, ‘‘I will have to check with my wife about that,’’ then seems to lose interest in the conversation.Link to MIT Press's Brain Fiction page, Link to buy the book on Amazon (via Mind Hacks)
The man isn’t ‘‘crazy’’ or schizophrenic; he is quite coherent and can answer all sorts of questions about who his children are, who the current president is, and so on. He is confabulatory, owing in this case to the fact that he has Korsakoff’s syndrome, a disorder that affects his memory, producing a dense amnesia for recent events. But unlike other patients with memory dysfunction, who freely admit their memories are poor, a patient with Korsakoff’s syndrome will confidently report as memories events that either did not happen (or at least did not involve him) or that happened to him, but much earlier in life. This man’s act of describing the conference in New York City is known as a confabulation.
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.