Kids Confabulate the Darndest Things
Have you ever been discussing an experience with someone who had shared it with you and started arguing over some of the details? Long-term memory is the process of searching, locating, retrieving, and transferring information to working memory. Rote recall,especially of frequently used information, such as your name and address, is actually simple. These pathways are clear, and retrieval time is very short. Retrieving more complex and less frequently used concepts is much more complicated. It requires signaling multiple storage sites through elaborate, cluttered pathways for intermediate consolidation and ultimate decoding into working memory. It is less accurate. First, most of us do not retain 100 percent of elaborate experiences, such as an extensive vacation. Second, we store parts of the experience in many storage sites.
When retrieving such an experience, the long-term memory may not be able to locate all the events being requested, either because of insufficient time or because they were never retained. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, older memories can be modified or distorted by the acquisition of newer information. During the retrieval process, memory can unconsciously fabricate the missing or incomplete information by selecting the next closest item it can recall. This process is called confabulation and occurs because the brain is always active and creative, and seems to abhor incompleteness. Confabulation is not unlike the way the brain completes visual patterns that do not exist, as in optical illusions. Take a look at the Kanizsa Triangle to the left. Although you may see a white triangle in the diagram, it does not exist. It is the result of confabulation as the brain seeks to make sense of the pattern.
Confabulation is not lying, because it is an unconscious rather than a deliberate process, and the individual believes the fabricated information to be true. This explains why two people who participated in the same experience will later recall slightly—or even significantly—different versions of the same event. Neither individual stored 100 percent of the experience. If each stored 90 percent, it would not be the same 90 percent for both. Their missing and different 10 percent will be fabricated and will cause each to question the accuracy of the other’s memory. The less of the experience remembered, the more the brain must fabricate. Over time, the fabricated parts are consolidated into the memory network. As we systematically recall this memory, minor alterations may continue to be made through confabulation. Gradually, the original memory is transformed and encoded into a considerably different one that we believe to be true and accurate. Although we all fall victim to confabulation at one time or another, damage to certain brain areas can cause chronic and extreme confabulation where the recalled memories deviate significantly from reality (Shallice, 1999).
Implications for Teaching. Confabulation also happens in the classroom. When recalling complex learning, the learner is unaware of which parts are missing and, thus, fabricated. The younger the learner, the more inconsistent the fabricated parts can be. The teacher may react by thinking the student is inventing answers intentionally and may discipline accordingly. In another situation, a
list of similar words or concepts may induce the confabulation of words or concepts not on the list. Studies show that this is a common phenomenon (Roediger & McDermott, 1995). In these cases, the teacher should be aware of confabulation as a possibility, identify the fabricated parts, and Our brain fabricates information and experiences that we believe to be true. provide the feedback needed to help the student correct the inaccurate material. Through practice, the learner will incorporate the corrected material and transfer it to long-term memory. Confabulation has implications for the justice system. This tendency for the brain to fabricate information rather than admit its absence can have serious consequences in court trials where eyewitnesses, under the pressure of testifying, feel compelled to provide complete information. Confabulation also raises questions about the accuracy of witnesses recalling very old memories of unpleasant events, such as a childhood accident or abuse. Experiments have shown how easy it is to distort a person’s recollection of even recent events, or to “implant” memories. In the absence of independent verification, it is impossible to decide what events in the recalled “repressed memory” actually occurred and which are the result of confabulation (Loftus, 1997; Wells, Memon, & Penrod, 2006).
Loftus, E. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277, 51-55.
Roediger, H. L., III, & McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 803-814.
Shallice, T. (1999). The origin of confabulations. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 588-590.
Wells, Gary L., Amina Memon, and Steven D. Penrod. “Eyewitness Evidence: Improving Its Probative Value.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7.2 (2006): 45-75. Print.