Confabulation occurs when someone misremembers something. The memory disturbance might be the creation of a memory that never occurred, the gross distortion of an actual event, or the insistence that something that did happen actually did not occur. Confabulations are heavily influenced by emotion. Most people confabulate sometimes, and mundane examples occur regularly. For example, a woman who feels neglected by her husband might insist that he has not gone anywhere with her in weeks. Upon further investigation, it might become clear that he has gone several places with her, but the woman’s sense of neglect impedes her ability to accurately remember their relationship history. For this reason, confabulations are often referred to as accidental lies.
Causes of Confabulation
Mundane confabulations can be caused by extreme emotions ranging from sadness to joy. However, more serious confabulations—such as the manufacture of something that never occurred—can be caused by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress, and depression. Depressed people frequently struggle to remember positive events, while people with posttraumatic stress might block out significant portions of a traumatic memory. The thought disturbances of a schizophrenic person might cause him or her to believe that something happened when it did not.
Brain damage and physiological disorders can also cause confabulations. For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease may insist that something happened yesterday when it happened 50 years ago, or may believe that one family member—a son or daughter, for example—is a different family member, perhaps a sibling, spouse, or cousin.
False memory syndrome, which is not recommended by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but which can be induced by hypnosis, can also lead to confabulation. A person who “recovers” a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse may fervently believe in its truth, and may even act like a trauma victim, even when the trauma never actually occurred.
Treatment for Confabulation
Mundane, everyday confabulations do not require treatment, but the emotions that contribute to frequent confabulation can improve with psychotherapy. Couples frequently engage in confabulation during times of stress, and may benefit from couples therapy. When confabulation is caused by an underlying mental health or physiological disorder, treatment focuses on the illness itself, and may include medication, psychotherapy, and learning new coping skills.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Last Updated: 08-4-2015
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