When Conviction Becomes Confabulation

Ever since I started working on Miracle Detectives, the TV show that I co-hosted on the OWN network, I’ve been fascinated by circumstances in which a person maintains a particular belief in the face of contradictory evidence. My goal on the show was never to shake someone’s faith but rather to explore mysterious phenomena with the tools that science has to offer. Most people could incorporate whatever new information I was able to glean into their existing worldview but once in a while, I met someone who stuck to a certain belief regardless of the evidence for or against it. That sort of conviction is considered noble in many situations: we value loyalty in friends and employees, we admire religious fervor, we encourage determination in the pursuit of wildly ambitious dreams and we set instincts on a higher pedestal than data in many business decisions.


But when does conviction turn into confabulation? Confabulation is a term that neurologists coined to describe a disorder of memory in which a patient gives a false or contrived answer to questions about the past but who believes that these answers reflect the truth. It was first described in patients with Korsakoff’s syndrome, whose memories have been obliterated by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency usually following years of alcohol abuse and/or severe malnutrition. Oliver Sacks poignantly described a case study in The Lost Mariner and A Matter of Identity in his book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.*

But while the Korsakoff’s patient represents one extreme, we have all confabulated at one time or another. Young children reporting their own memories often confabulate, as they learn how to distinguish remembering from fantasizing. We often indulge in impulse buying, justifying our purchases after the fact with false memories and constructing a narrative that makes sense and leaves our ego intact. We deny our shortcomings; the vast majority of us consider ourselves to be ‘above average’ in most instances. In the extreme cases of anosognosia, or denial of illness often following stroke, some patients will deny that part of their anatomy has been paralyzed, insisting that if they really wanted to, they could move the affected region.

Doubt, particularly in Western society, is interpreted as a sign of weakness. For many people, the term ‘skeptic’ is synonymous with Doubting Thomas, someone who refuses to believe unless shown direct evidence, and being called a skeptic is seen as pejorative amongst many social groups. Confabulation involves a lack of doubt, about something that is inherently doubtful: one’s memory for the past. But confabulation also involves a skill that humans have perfected: story-telling.

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that our propensity for creating, telling and remembering stories emerged about the same time that the proliferation of our neocortex began to differentiate us from other primates, and that this metabolically-expensive leap in brain size was driven by the need to communicate with each other and navigate social relationships. As our ancestors found strength in numbers, understanding and predicting the behavior of fellow co-habitants afforded a certain advantage, genetically-speaking. Stories might have served as tools for accomplishing this delicate task. But when that storyteller is let loose, and the Doubting Thomas in the brain is silenced, either unintentionally by brain damage or deliberately by conviction, confabulation is the result. Perhaps what fascinates me, then, is the interplay between the interpreter and the doubter in different people: how the relationship between these two components of the mind can result in belief or doubt.

*This book has also been made into an opera with music by Michael Nyman, which I’ve been dying to perform.


When Time Stands Still

This week, I boldly ventured out of the house, knowing I won’t return until after dark, without a scarf and wearing a mini-skirt with, wait for it, NO LEGGINGS. You might chuckle to yourself, thinking that now I look just like all the tourists who visit San Francisco in the summer only to keep the sweatshirt business flourishing in Fisherman’s Wharf. But I will have the last laugh, as the sun sets and I walk home without a single goosebump: San Francisco’s secret September summer is finally here.

As you can probably tell, I feel a certain pride in my fledgling understanding of San Francisco’s seasons. Dressing for the weather is an art in this city, and I’m convinced that the eclectic fashion of our native hipsters is influenced in large part by the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the different neighborhoods of the city and at different times of the day.

Just as my brain has finally sorted out the regularities in our highly irregular climate, I must admit that I have become a bit of a San Francisco cliche. I no longer fear simultaneously donning two different patterns. I prefer to walk or ride a bike than to drive. I’m really picky when it comes to coffee. I get a box of vegetables delivered from a local farm every week. I do what I love, relying on the kindness of strangers to pay me for doing it. I have an entire trunk dedicated to my scarf collection. When I drive, I drive a smart car so that I can park in between meters. I run a lot. I blog. I tweet. And I listen to NPR.

And so it was that I found myself moved to tears (while driving my smart car to a random gig) by Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air. He has just lost two dear friends, one a few months ago, and another just the other day, and he talked about how he doesn’t fear death itself, but he does fear isolation. He misses his friends and all the other loved ones that he’s lost. So he wrote another book, to help him negotiate these feelings and to explore them further.


Bumble-ardy, the latest from author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is dark and deeply imaginative, much like his classic works Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues. When his aunt returns she says, "Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again." Bumble-ardy replies, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10."

That last line has rattled around my mind all week: a simple rhyme that can be interpreted in so many ways, including as a strong desire to elongate the present moment into eternity and stop the unrelenting march of Time. I have long been fascinated by (and fearful of) the passage of time and the way that our minds track it. Our internal chronometer works in a myriad of ways, each tuned to a different time scale, from milliseconds to years. And just as memory is not an accurate record of the past, our sense of time is distorted by our goals, emotions, past experiences and current environment.

Even if we understand objectively that our memories are reconstructed versions of our experiences, it’s still difficult to reconcile the fact that our experiencing selves are very different from our remembering selves (see Kahneman’s brilliant TED talk here). That separation, however, is obvious to
David Eagleman, a 39-year old neuroscientist in Texas, who launched his human subjects off of a 50-meter high platform to test the notion that time slows down when we fear for our lives (a great New Yorker profile of him can be found here).

As expected, the disheveled subjects reported that their fall seemed to last a long time, and estimated that their own fall was 36% longer than the falls of the other subjects. A portable ‘perceptual chronometer’ was strapped onto the wrists of the subjects, to test whether subjects’ experiencing selves have better temporal resolution during the fall, when they report having experienced the slowing of time. A supersense should have its usefulness, after all, and the military, who funded part of this work, would benefit from harnessing such a skill. Alas, Eagleman and his colleagues found no evidence that our experiencing selves actually perceive time differently during frightening events. It all comes down to how and what we remember.

Happily, however, this finding points Bumble-ardy towards a way to accomplish his desire to stop Time. While we can’t manipulate the passage of time outside of our minds, our memory and imagination are the tools we need to leap forward, jump back and, most importantly, do-over what Time has taken away from us. Crafting rich, varied, and meaningful experiences fills our memory repositories with branches and footholds that trigger and support our reconstruction of Time gone by.


The Creativity Instinct

In an interview earlier this week, I was asked to define creativity, a fairly common and entirely reasonable request given that I have made the expression and study of creativity my profession. Lately, I have found that I’m less and less comfortable answering that question with the traditional response; some combination of novelty and utility. That is, creative output must both be novel (a new combination of existing ideas or objects or an entirely new thing) and useful (that is, have some purpose). I won’t go into detail defending this particular definition or knocking it down, for that matter, except to say that as we learn more and more about creative behaviors and the motivation behind creativity, defining it has become as easy as herding cats. And likely just as useful.


I have come to believe that defining creativity in one comprehensive sound byte is at best unnecessary and at worst potentially harmful, if we ever want to truly understand it. What if we applied that same strict criteria to an equally complicated cognitive construct, such as memory? I often use the following definition of memory when asked to provide one, which is both unsatisfactory and strictly true: the change in behavior that comes with experience. I have developed muscle memories for singing after 15+ years of training and my behavior has changed as a result of that experience. I have a long autobiography of vivid events that I can summon at will to affect my current actions. My experience of the visual realm affects the way that I interpret what I see today. Although accurate, the definition glosses over the very aspect of memory that piques the curiosity of most people who want to discuss the topic: the fact that we can search through a vast repository of information that we gathered over a lifetime and use it to our advantage. How it works is much more interesting than what it is.

The very same is true for creativity. Creativity, like memory, is a collection of many processes and behaviors, with many different motivators and mechanisms. Like the study of memory, the study of creativity would also benefit greatly by a shift away from definition and towards understanding how it works under different circumstances. We talk about the differences between memory for events and motor skills or habits. In the same way, we should talk about the differences between creativity in writing and creativity in dance.

Often, when I’m not doing a particularly good job of sharing my enthusiasm for science and instead am caught up in academic jargon or the minutiae of some esoteric argument, I see the eyes of my conversation partner glaze over with boredom. It always surprises me because I’m clearly interested in what I’m talking about. But then I remember that what fascinates me is not what I know, but, rather, what I don’t know. Delving more deeply into a topic as wide-reaching and humanistic as creativity only raises more questions. And that is what drives interest. We flock towards the mysterious, towards things that we can’t seem to explain because curiosity leads to knowledge which leads to better decisions and, dare I say, the reproduction of those genes that underlie curiosity (for a paper on a potential curiosity gene, you can read about great tits, though not the kind you’re thinking of, unfortunately).

We hate boredom: it’s a highly uncomfortable state, as evidenced by our knee-jerk reaction to pick up a smartphone or even look out the window. And we love information: twitter thrives because it promises a never-ending stream of information about our world and its co-inhabitants. The bigger the mystery, the more surprising the cliff-hanger, the more complex the visual scene, the more interested we remain. Provided, of course, that there is some pattern or some hint of a pattern that suggests it’s not completely random. Because randomness is unpredictable and therefore useless information. Creativity, that new interpretation of ourselves and our world, is arguably our most powerful instinct. Only by understanding how it works can we ever hope to understand what it is.