Confabulation – New Age Literary Terms

large_open_bookToday is a good term, coming from Psychology. We are talking about Confabulation. Doesn’t even seem like a real word, does it? This deals with how characters can sometimes create whole events that never happened, yet unaware its false. Enjoy.

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Confabulation is a disruption in memory, that is a product of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories that one has about themselves or their world.

In a way, confabulation sounds like lying, but the difference between confabulation and lying is that lying is the intent to deceive. Confabulated person is unaware the information is false, and can even be proven false, but said person will truly believe it is the truth with great confidence.

Another name for Confabulation is False Memory. Can also be referred to as Fake Memory.


With Confabulation, it is generally a distortion of what happened to someone in their life and quite possibly remembered it differently than what actually happened. However, they are very confident that it happened as they think, then getting angry when someone counters their recall of events and simply states that others are wrong. It can be very frustrating, especially when we deal with things like aneurysm, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurological disorders.

Confabulation isn’t always someone’s personal memories, it can be any information they remember. It can be stories they’ve heard, movies they watched, or something they once learned in school. The account can be fantastic or coherent. The false memory may originate from something that actually happened to something that never happened.

Interestingly, a person with False memory, will not realize they have it, and will easily ignore details that may contradict them. This is quite possibly a survival instinct similar to Self-Serving Bias. For it to be a False Memory, there can be no motive for the person to actively not be aware of the events.

This can be done internal or external force. Most fiction writing focus on external forces. The most common external force is a head injury. Internalized Force is likely something genetic that occurs or is part of old age.

A few possible explanations is that details of a memory, especially the older they are, are simply forgotten, and the brain tries to fill in the details the best it can. Another possibility is an emotional connection with confabulation, that people psychologically want things to be a certain way to fit within someones emotional state.

With that, it is possible that something is so traumatic, that their brains forgets details of it on purpose to protect said person. Again, this is not malicious nor does a person know they are doing it.

The thing to remember about memory is that we don’t record everything that happens to us in our lives, despite the common belief that we do. Though sometimes things that we do remember are buried, so while we can often times directly recall memories as we like, other memories must be triggered for us to remember. However, if our brain didn’t record something in explicit detail, but we know we did it, our brain will create false memories to complete the broken image.

This leads us into Fuzzy-Trace Theory, or FTT. It’s a concept that is more applied to the explanation of judgement decisions, but can help us understand Confabulation.

According to the theory, when a memory is recorded in your mind, it is tagged in two ways; verbatim and gist. There is a good chance that false memory occurs when you try to recall verbatim memory (exact details) and instead recall gist memory (basic overview) and fill in the gaps of missing knowledge so it makes sense to yourself.


There are five principles to explain false-memory with FTT:

1. Verbatim and Gist information is stored parallel to each other.
2. Both share factors of retrieval
3. Gist retrieval supports false memory; Verbatim suppresses false memory
4. As we become adults, there is better retention for verbatim and gist memory, however as we get older, there is a decline in recall abilities
5. Both of these together cause vivid remembering.

It makes one wonder why we don’t just have verbatim memory all the time rather having gist in conjunction. I can’t really answer that, except to say, from a computer engineer standpoint, that it is faster to load up part of the information most important to you, rather than the full thing.

Why read the entire collection of Shakespeare if the quote you’re looking for in Macbeth. Why read all of Macbeth if the quote you’re looking for is in Act I. This gets into Heuristics, and that is another discussion for another day.

So FTT possibly explains that false memories are generated when we try to recall verbatim memory and instead recall gist memory, trying to fill in the details. FTT might also explain complete fabrications of memory that we recall something, but don’t have the full context of that memory and we insert details to make it true for ourselves. Like that your uncle went to France for the summer, and 20 years later, you’re convinced you went to France instead. For some reason, you’ve forgot that it was your uncle who went there, not you.

Because of these principles of Confabulation, eye-witness testimony can be highly unreliable. Which might also explain why lie detector tests are inadmissible in court, not just because it can be beaten, but someone may not remember details correctly but be confident they are telling the truth.


It has been shown that there are circumstances that eye-witness testimony can be faulty. Which is why cases are rarely built on eye-witness testimony alone. Evidence collection to support eye-witness testimony is generally required.

It has been shown that eye-witnesses forget details, or remember details out of order, and possibly recall details that didn’t happen. Using FTT, we can conclude they are using gist memory and not verbatim memory. This might be caused by a variety of reasons, but it is possible that the mind is protecting itself.

Mythbusters episode 76 “Voice Flame Extinguisher” tested memory recall with the use of hypnosis. They confirmed that hypnosis can be used to recall details a lot better. Likely what hypnosis is doing, under FTT, is recalling verbatim memory to help people to recall details they couldn’t do in a non-hypnotic state.

Helping Writers

So, that was a lot of information to go over. But we are far from done, though hopefully we’ll have a bit of fun.

We have to remember that elements found within fiction writing are not entirely based on reality, and often done to increase drama in a story. So what we mention here is for the benefit of fiction, but I will try to point out when something in fiction disagrees with reality.

I’ve concluded 6 instances when False Memory (Confabulation) occurs. For the fiction portion, I will use False Memory instead of confabulation. Many of these instances are generally trying to accomplish something else, and using False Memory is part of the process.

1. Psychic/Magic

Psychic manipulation of someone’s mind to forget details of something. Now, it can be done that they simply don’t remember the event. The danger of this is they will notice gaps in their memory.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Clues’, everyone was unconscious, but believed it was only for 30 seconds. However, they found clues to state that this was incorrect, and that they were out much longer than that. They discovered that they themselves had done this and messed up in the process of getting themselves to forget the details.


So, in order to prevent that, you need to insert false memories so no one can question the validity of the manipulation. Now, Psychic manipulation can be on par with magical manipulation. So if you have a spell to induce false memories to cover up other memories, perhaps the spell includes their need to believe strongly in the false memories.

This is present in the show, Once Upon a Time. An entire world of Fairytale characters are transported to our world and given memories of being from our world and forced to forget where they actually come from. Despite evidence, they are adamant that fairytales are just that, fairytales.


2. Hormone/Chemical

Technically a hormone is a chemical, but the difference between the two is one is made naturally, and other is artificially created.

In this, a person recalls memory because a chemical is introduced to them that forces them to remember a new faux memory.

Hormone is an indication that a person or species has the ability to trick others into believing what they want their victims to believe. Usually just by touching them. Not always insidious.

In the Stargate SG-1 episode “Fifth Man” an alien species ‘joins’ the team by using a chemical in his body and implanting it, convincing the team he is one of them.

Chemical, as stated before, is an artificially created compound used for the same purpose.

We see an example of this in the film Dark City, where people are put to sleep and injected with new memories while erasing their old ones, for the purpose to see how they react with said memories. Doesn’t seem to alter their personalities directly.


3. Technological/Surgical

Rather than using magic, you use science to directly affect someone’s memory and give them false ones. Though this can be combined with chemical, and with the use of a syringe in Dark City, could technically be surgical.

Technical is that you are using a special machine that induces false memories. If you think of a brain having data like a computer, then technology could implant new memories.

An example of this is the show Chuck, where the intersect (which is responsible for giving Chuck memory recall of intelligence and Kung-fu ability) caused Hartley Winterbottom to become Alexei Volkoff, who served as an enemy to Chuck and his team. The intersect made use of uploading information through a series of specially encoded pictures, that were themselves of something mundane.


Surgical is more of a fantasy, in that you cut into someones brain to remove their memory and insert new ones. This would be impossible to do.

4. Traumatic

As discussed, a traumatic event may cause someone to remember an event differently. It may even have the effect of remember someone else’s memory as your own.

This is seen in Final Fantasy 7. Cloud having witnessed Nibelheim Incident and Zack’s death, takes on Zack’s life and memories (that he’s aware of) and implant mentally into his own life. His memories are a combination of his own and Zack’s. In this, we are witnessing Cloud having an identity crisis, as his mind is unable to handle the trauma of what happened. So much so, that to Cloud, Zack never existed.


5. Brainwashing

There is some suggestion that this doesn’t actually happen, that it is a myth. This is something I will have to search for in more detail later, but we do see it a lot in fiction.

Brainwashing is used to get people to do things they don’t want to do (though Mythbusters have proven that through hypnosis, you can’t force people to do something they don’t want), and can give the victim false memories as well.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Jet was captured by the Dai Li and was brained washed into helping Aang with Appa, by leading him to a storage area and told by a worker that Appa went away. Jet believed he came upon this information by working nearby, when in truth, the information was fed to him during his time with Dai Li. Jet initially had no memory of being with the Dai Li and Toph even stated that Jet believed this lie.


It is possible to give people suggestions on things that happened that didn’t actually happen. This can occur in witness testimony that some questions in how they are asked can be incorporated into their memories. Such as a witness is asked if they saw the gun, and even though they didn’t, they say they did.

This is most famous from the 1980-1990’s Daycare Sex-Abuse Hysteria. Where not only did sexual abuse of children occur at daycare centers, but also Satanic rituals. It was discovered that many children were manipulated into providing answers based on questions being asked.

More than that, children will often answer questions that don’t make sense because they believe an answer must be given, whereas adults would question the actual question itself (ex: Is milk bigger than water). Also, when a question is repeated to a child, they are likely to change their answer under the belief that their initial response was wrong.

This can be the result of Interviewer bias, where an interviewer will conduct an interview to support a bias and will change how questions are asked to get people to answer a certain way. They may even give positive reinforcement if they get the answers they want.

This will cause the victims to lie to tell the interviewer by telling them what they want to hear, or for the victim to believe the narrative of the interviewer is true and alter their memories to fit it. This is a form of brainwashing.

6. Decay

We really covered this on the first part of the article, that as you get older, it is harder to recall memories, likely to recall gist memories when trying to recall verbatim memories. You could also plain forget memories and in trying to recall, your brain invents details that you think are correct.

In the Original Star Trek episode “The Deadly Years” Kirks, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, and Galway are aging rapidly. When Kirk is on the bridge, he states a message needs to be sent out to Starbase 10. Spock reminds him that a message was sent out earlier that day. Next he forgets he signed off on a report, only realized he did when he sees his signature. He orders the an encoded message to be sent to Starfleet due to their proximity of the Romulan Neutral Zone, using Code 2. Uhura reminds Kirk that the Romulans have broke code 2, so Kirk instead orders code 3. He then tells Sulu to position the ship 20,000 km above the planet, to which Sulu informs him they already are. Kirk responds, famously, “I fail to understand why my orders are repeatedly being questioned!”

What we are seeing is a decay in memory recall, and with that decay, Kirk is inserting false memories that he has, or hasn’t, done things that others point out to him that he is wrong. He then gets angry.


In your story, you’ve got a lot of options to use to create false memory. It is not always a blow to the head, but can be everyday life. Perhaps the false memory of something is what led your character in trouble in the first place.

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