Monday, September 3, 2012


Have you ever told a story that you embellished by putting yourself at the center when you knew that you weren’t even there? Or have you ever been absolutely sure you remembered something correctly, only to be shown incontrovertible evidence that your memory was wrong? No, of course not. But you probably know or have heard of somebody else who juiced up a story with made-up details or whose confidence in his memory was shown to be undeserved by evidence that his memory was false.

Confabulation is an unconscious process of creating a narrative that is believed to be true by the narrator but is demonstrably false. The term is popular in psychiatric circles to describe narratives of patients with brain damage or a psychiatric disorder who make statements about what they perceive or remember. The narratives are known to be either completely fictional or in great part fantasy, but they are believed to be true by the patients.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of a patient with a brain disorder that prevented him from forming new memories. Even though “Mr. Thompson” could not remember who Sacks was, each time Sacks visited him he created a fictional narrative about their previous encounters. Sometimes Sacks was a butcher Thompson knew when he worked as a grocer. A few minutes later, he’d recognize Sacks as a customer and create a new fictional narrative. Sacks described Thompson’s confabulations as an attempt to make meaning out of perceptions that he could only relate to events in long-term memory.

You might think: poor fellow; he has to construct his memories and fill in the blank parts with stuff he makes up. Yes, he does. But so do you, and so do I. There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on memory that shows memories are constructed by all of us and that the construction is a mixture of fact and fiction. Something similar is true for perception. Our perceptions are constructions that are a mixture of sense data processed by the brain and other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.

Now there is a body of growing scientific research that shows confabulation is not something restricted to psychiatric patients or gifted fantasizers who believe they were abducted by aliens for reproductive surgery. The evidence shows that many of the narratives each of us produce on a daily basis to explain how we feel, why we did something, or why we made a judgment that we made are confabulations, mixtures of fact and fiction that we believe to be completely true.

This research should give us pause. Many of us accuse others of making stuff up when they present arguments that are demonstrably full of false or questionable claims, but it’s possible that people who make stuff up aren’t even aware of it. They might really believe the falsehoods they utter.

For example, Paul Ryan was accused of lying and deception in a speech he gave at the Republican National Convention. Here is what Ryan actually said:

My home state [Wisconsin] voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. 
A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.”  That’s what he said in 2008. 
Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year.  It is locked up and empty to this day.  And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.
What was Ryan's point? What are the facts? And, was he lying or trying to be deceptive? Was his point that the economic recovery under Obama isn't working and the closure of the Janesville plant is just one example of what's happening in many towns where the recovery isn't happening? Was he implying that he and Romney support the idea of the government bailing out plants so they don't have to close, while Obama says he supports the idea but doesn't actually do it? Those who called Ryan a liar or deceptive thought his point was that Obama is a hypocrite and a failure because he implied he (i.e., the government) would support the workers but in fact Obama closed the plant down. (Ten months after his speech and three months before Obama became president, the Janesville factory ceased manufacturing SUVs and nearly all the plant's employees had been laid off; 50 stayed in the massive plant until late April, a few months after Obama became President. The plant is now considered "idle.") As far as I can tell, everything Ryan said is true. Was what he said deceptive? Ryan took Obama's words out of context. Candidate Obama went on in his speech at the Janesville plant to praise the development of hybrids and energy efficient vehicles. His speech was focused on retooling plants that close to support creating millions of jobs around clean, renewable energy. Obama gave an example from a nearby town where workers in a manufacturing plant that had closed and moved to Mexico were retrained to produce wind turbines. Obama has promised economic recovery. So did George W. Bush. Both emphasized that nobody can predict with accuracy how long the recovery will take. Since the Janesville plant is "idle" rather than completely closed down, there is still a chance that someday it will re-open, perhaps with a different product along the lines that Obama supports.

I think what Ryan said is deceptive, but not for the reasons given by journalists like Eugene Robinson who attacked his speech. I think it is deceptive because it is selective and ignores examples where recovery is in sight. At the same convention that Ryan made his comments, New Jersey governor Chris Christie called California governor Jerry Brown  an "old retread," but in California 365,000 jobs were gained in the 12 months ending in July, 2012. Our state has grown jobs twice as fast as the nation – 2.6 percent vs. 1.3 percent. "Professional, scientific, technical and information services added 60,000 jobs....In the second quarter of 2012, more venture capital was invested in California-based companies than in the other 49 states combined." California and the nation are a long way from full recovery, but to imply that recovery is "nowhere in sight" in some places means that there's no recovery under Obama is false. On the other hand, I don't think Ryan made stuff up so much as he left stuff out. I don't think he confabulated so much as engaged in false implication.

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Studies on what is now called “choice blindness” demonstrate that often people who make stuff up aren’t even aware of it and really believe the falsehoods they utter. Researchers showed males two pictures of female faces and asked them which one they found more attractive. The men were then asked why they chose the one they did. The photos were then turned face down and a trick was played on the subjects. One of the photos was turned over and sometimes the photo turned over was not the one the male selected. Yet, in a majority of the trials the subject didn’t even notice the switch and proceeded to provide details as to why he selected the one he didn’t actually select. The majority of subjects are known to have confabulated. But it is possible that they all did.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are famous for having discovered that many of us answer an easier question than the one that is posed. These subjects were asked which female face they found more attractive. As far as I know, there was no attempt on the part of the researchers to discover what criteria the subjects would use to determine how they measure attractiveness in females. It is likely that most of us have no problem deciding whether we find a person attractive, but how many of us have ever reflected on the criteria we use in making that decision? If there is just one photo to look at, most of us would instantly decide whether the face is attractive. But would we know why we feel the way we do? Our brain must have gone through some sort of decision-making process in an instant. What data our brain was using to arouse our feelings is unknown to us at the moment we decide that the face is or isn’t attractive. The same would be true for making a comparison between two faces. We might do it instantly and there is no way we could be conscious of the criteria our brain is using to drive our feelings. So, when asked why we find face A more attractive than face B, we make stuff up.

For all we know, when asked which face is more attractive, we answer not that question but another one such as “which girl would I want to kiss” or “which girl looks friendlier” or “which girl would be more likely to find me attractive.” Yet, when we give our reasons for our choice to the experimenter, we may say things like “She has a lovely smile. Her hairdo is very nice. She looks like she’d be fun to party with. She reminds me of some actress I like.” The actual reasons for our choice may or may not coincide with what we say, and we usually have no way of knowing whether we’re telling the truth even though we believe we are. We might state what we think a man should say when describing a woman as attractive rather than state or even know why we really find one face more attractive than another.

The researchers who did the study on face choices also did a study called “Magic at the Marketplace: Choice Blindness for the Taste of Jam and the Smell of Tea.” Many people had no problem explaining why they favored a jam even though when given a second taste of what they thought was the one they selected, it wasn’t the one they'd selected. Several other studies have found that confabulation is rather common among us ordinary folk who have not yet been diagnosed with a brain disorder.

Perhaps we make up stories that seem plausible to us, even though we don’t really have a clue as to their accuracy, for the same reason that Mr. Thompson did. We confabulate to make sense out of our experience, our feelings, our perceptions, and our memories. Unlike Mr. Thompson, though, most of us have brains that can access vast quantities of data in an instant, but these brain processes are taking place below the level of consciousness. We’re often not really aware of why we’re constructing the stories we do.

It may be hard to believe but the evidence is overwhelming that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.

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