stories

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.

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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.

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Remembering in Manhattan

This week, I’m in Manhattan preparing for a marathon concert as my way of supporting people who were affected by the attacks on 9/11. I’ve started this blog-post numerous times, and have abandoned it because I, personally, did not lose anyone that I loved. It seems disingenuous to touch on the event as an outsider, when so many people experienced loss firsthand. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 is not loss, but connection.

When we were shooting
the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:

'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'


I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.

We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.

Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our
experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.

There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example.
Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.

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