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Confabulation, false memory, or less often pseudomemory is a term in cognitive psychology defined as a recollection of something that never happened. This can range from something as minor as misremembering an item on a list to fabricating an entire detailed, vivid memory out of whole cloth. While it is intuitively obvious that memory is fallible, a great deal of pseudoscience and woo is built on the idea that all or at least some memory is infallible, as in much anecdotal evidence. This assertion is unsupported by current evidence. Memory, in essence, is not akin to a tape recorder but a process that reconstructs past experience. This makes it highly susceptible to errors.
The foundational works relating to confabulation in memory were produced by Frederic Bartlett and Elizabeth Loftus. Bartlett drew on the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus and contemporary social psychology of the day (early 20th century) to describe the process of confabulation. Loftus, working from the 1970s on, laid the groundwork for research of confabulation in modern cognitive psychology.
Multiple psychologists in the field have strongly protested the work of Loftus claiming that it is both unethical and unscientific to attempt to diagnose an individual who has never been met by the diagnostician (the Goldwater rule). These psychologists cite multiple cases of corroborated repressed memory as evidence that simply because some people get it wrong doesn't mean they all do and that some people get some right and some wrong as is intrinsically discovered with most psychological memory experiments.
Methods of confabulation
Some ways in which confabulations can come about:
- Schemata. This concept was developed by Bartlett, who wrote a number of original myths that mimicked myths in various cultures. However, he wrote each story such that a few details were uncharacteristic of the myth for that culture. When he had subjects read the stories, they would often forget or rewrite those details to fit the story better, even if they had rehearsed the story a number of times. Bartlett hypothesized that these expectations (the "schema") shaped the memory of the stories. A common experiment used to demonstrate this is the "professor's office." You can even do it yourself. Just look at this picture for 5 seconds, then close the page and write down all the items you can remember.[note 1]
- Brain damage. Damage to brain tissue can cause a person to have more confabulations. This is evident in disorders like amnesia and Alzheimer's, and is especially prominent in the condition known as Korsakoff syndrome.
- Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) effect. This is a confabulation caused by association. In the most basic form, subjects are given a list of related words (e.g., bed, pillow, blanket). When asked to recall the words, subjects will recall words related to those but not on the list (e.g., sleep).
- Dreams and hallucinations. Dreams, hypnagogic, and hypnopompic hallucinations can often be misinterpreted as actual memories.
- Planning or anticipation. Prospective memory (i.e., remembering to remember) and planning something are in fact similar to recalling old memories and use similar areas of the brain. The mind essentially runs a "simulation" of an event, and sometimes this may be conflated with something that actually happened.
- Interference. Interference is a general term for an event occurring at encoding or retrieval of a memory that interferes with it and causes a confabulation. Some examples include:
- The misinformation effect as demonstrated by Loftus. This can include things such as leading questions or misinformation provided by a confederate.
- Social pressure or "memory conformity effects". This is an instance of the misinformation effect where a confederate (or multiple ones) is used to alter a memory through the use of peer pressure.
- Distractions. A distraction during either encoding or retrieval can cause a confabulation.
False memory controversy, Satanic Panic, and recovered memories
The revival of the Satanic Panic during the 1980s and widespread accusations of Satanic ritual abuse happened to coincide with the period in which Loftus was conducting her most influential research. Loftus was called as a witness during the McMartin trials to testify about her research and the fallibility of memory. The difficulty in substantiating the allegations of abuse and Satanic rituals became more apparent as some children made wild accusations about people flying or being abused by Chuck Norris. Further outbreaks of cases involving child abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s caused a controversy over the concept of recovered memories.
Plausibility of recovered memory
The scientific status of the concept of recovered memories is in many ways more of a semantic issue than anything else, especially due to the variety of mechanisms that have been proposed by recovered memory proponents. In general, recovered memory proponents suggest that these traumatic events are encoded in some special or unique way such that they need to be "recovered," making their claims similar to Sigmund Freud's concept of repressed memory.
All memory is "recovered memory" as all memories are thrown into the "filing cabinet" of the unconscious mind until we pay attention to them (much like data can be stored on a hard disk, but is accessed through RAM). The idea that a memory could be explicitly forgotten but implicitly remembered had been demonstrated scientifically as early as the 19th century with Ebbinghaus' discovery of the savings effect. Thus, some of the claims of recovered memory therapy (RMT) proponents are in some ways re-describing already validated theory.
There is also the issue of memory recovery in patients with milder forms of amnesia. While it's not a common phenomenon, some patients with retrograde amnesia have had success in regaining "lost" memories. Some patients with anterograde amnesia have had success in remembering new acquaintances and learning new skills through memory exercises, albeit more slowly and with more difficulty than normal people. However, there is no special "technique" or mechanism by which amnesiacs' memories are recovered — this is accomplished through simple rehearsal and memory exercises. This is another way in which RMT proponents are just re-inventing established theory.
Evidence presented and cognitive explanations
A number of corroborated cases of recovered memories involving sexual abuse are presented as evidence in favor of a separate mechanism for recovered memories. However, as described above, there is no contradiction in these cases with mainstream cognitive theory. This is often misinterpreted due to the framing of the debate as a false dichotomy between false memory and recovered memory, and only the handful of hard-line zealots on either side of the debate portray these two as mutually exclusive (Loftus herself, for one, does not deny that corroborated incidents have happened). When it comes to memory of childhood trauma, current research suggests that the nature of such trauma will make it more likely to be remembered. This is the position endorsed by the American Psychological Association:
“”First, it's important to state that there is a consensus among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them although they may not fully understand or disclose it. Concerning the issue of a recovered versus a pseudomemory, like many questions in science, the final answer is yet to be known. But most leaders in the field agree that although it is a rare occurrence, a memory of early childhood abuse that has been forgotten can be remembered later. However, these leaders also agree that it is possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred.
A number of other mechanisms of forgetting and recall already exist to explain the phenomenon of recovered memories as well:
- The stress and trauma of abuse. This would be considered interference and would thus hamper encoding. Neurological mechanisms have also been implicated in weakening the formation of new memories under stress.
- Ability to distract oneself and avoid rehearsing the memory so it's not as strongly remembered.
- The memory is unlikely to be mentioned by a third party, which means rehearsal of the memory will be less likely to happen due to a parent or relative talking about it.
- Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve applies over the long term as well (with qualifications, but the general trend holds). Thus, it's likely that a very old childhood memory will fade greatly but not disappear entirely. This is demonstrated in the reminiscence bump, which shows that early childhood memories are the weakest in the general population and that memories of positive events over five years old tend to be recalled more than negative memories.
- Some research suggests that memories are much more likely to be recovered due to contact with an object or place from the past than in a therapist's office. This is consistent with Endel Tulving's encoding specificity principle, which states that retrieval cues that were also present at the time the memory was encoded will be more likely to activate that memory (e.g., visiting your old Little League field might cause you to remember your first home run).
- The memory may be recovered but with key details "filled in," imagined, or otherwise omitted. An infamous example of this is a woman who was raped and later accused psychologist and memory expert Donald Thomson of the crime, picking him out of a police line-up. Thomson, however, had the perfect alibi: He was on television at the time of the rape and the woman had confused his face with that of the rapist.
It's worth noting that the research cited here is often also cited by RMT proponents as evidence, further demonstrating that part of what they're doing is simply adding a superfluous interpretation on top of well-studied concepts.
Traumatic vs. non-traumatic memories
RMT proponents attempt to portray traumatic memories as a unique case such that the memory will be "seared" in the unconscious forever and able to be recalled with perfect accuracy. While experimentation can't be done on sexual abuse or similar trauma due to ethical concerns, there is a good line of related experiments, observational studies, and anecdotal evidence to suggest that confabulation of traumatic events is possible. Semi-traumatic false memories have been successfully implanted in experiments like those in Loftus' lost-in-the-mall paradigm as well as fictional dog bites and animal attacks.
Furthermore, memories about traumatic historical events are often filled with confabulation (see the section on flashbulb memories below). Many myths and legends revolve around assault and rape, based on firsthand accounts of incidents where victims claim to remember being attacked by some creature. Probably the most famous of these are incubus and succubus myths. Sexual assault also figures into many UFO abduction stories. Not only can these memories involve sexual elements, but also elements stolen from pop culture. For example, abduction by "grays" was only reported after 1975, in which the archetypical "gray" alien was created for an NBC television special. Subjects who have reported being abducted by aliens are also more prone to false memories on DRM effect tests.
Recovered memory therapy
Another complication with the assertions of proponents of RMT is determining valid therapies and circumstances which will help memory to be recovered more accurately. This is where they veer more into the realm of outright pseudoscience. Recovered memory therapy is really a catch-all for therapies involving many different techniques, from New Age woo to hypnosis to psychotherapy by licensed psychologists. One of the books credited with launching the recovered memory craze is The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published in 1988. The book was not based on scientific research and neither Bass nor Davis have any expertise in memory or psychotherapy — Bass is a poet and creative writing teacher and Davis is a writing teacher who was the victim of incest and abuse as a child. Some of the case studies in the book were taken from now discredited reports of Satanic ritual abuse such as the autobiography Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith. Nevertheless, the book caused a good number of misguided feminists to support quack recovered memory therapy.
Some therapists believe that those who have traumatic memories that have yet to be recovered exhibit certain dysfunctional behavior patterns (this stems mostly from the work of Bessel van der Kolk as well as Bass and Davis). However, this is unfounded and the dysfunctional behavior is often indistinguishable from regular mental disorders. This may lead to confirmation bias in both patient and therapist, where the two believe the patient's actions to be the result of some unrecovered memory that needs to be "found" even if it doesn't actually exist.
Prevalence of false accusations and false memory
The body of research on the prevalence of uncorroborated accusations and false memories is contradictory. The current literature suggests that in some cases of child abuse, accusations are commonly substantiated while in others, they aren't. This seems to be largely dependent on a number of variables, including the circumstances of the accusation, age of the child, time between incident and accusation, etc. When it comes to the more religiously oriented allegations, like widespread Satanic ritual abuse, the numerous FBI investigations and later research strongly indicate moral panic.
Organizations and politics
Due to the use of memory research in legal cases, the false memory/recovered memory controversy became rather politicized. In the early 1990s, a group of parents accused of sexual abuse along with a number of psychiatric professionals established the The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). It is a non-profit organization that provides information to parents accused of abuse, adults who are claiming abuse, and professionals in law and medicine who need to deal with these claims. The organization also makes recommendations on techniques for counseling to avoid the therapist from 'leading' the patient into a fantasy and provides legal witnesses.
One issue many in psychological fields have had with FMSF is its definition of false memory syndrome. While the concept of confabulation has a solid body of evidence behind it, FMSF extends this into a "syndrome," in which a person's life is severely adversely affected by a false memory. False memory syndrome, while it does have preliminary evidence, should be treated as a hypothesis and is not currently listed in the DSM. Some psychologists have objected to claims of there being a false memory syndrome "epidemic." A 2005 report by the Australian government concluded that claims about widespread practice of RMT by improperly credentialed therapists were merely speculative. There was also an incident in which one of the members of the advisory board of FMSF, Ralph Underwager, gave an interview for an underground pedophilia publication, Paidika: The Journal of Pedophilia, in which he said pedophilia was simply a choice and even part of "God's will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people." He subsequently denied any endorsement of pedophilia and claimed that the quotes had been taken out of context, but was forced to resign.
Likewise, RMT proponents and child abuse advocates have founded their own groups to oppose the FMSF. Because the FMSF was founded in part by parents accused of abuse, the organization is often accused of endorsing pedophilia and shilling for child molesters. Some recovered memory groups make more level-headed criticisms of the FMSF, while others are simply partisan ax-grinders distorting scientific research and flinging mud at researchers.
Implications for the use of torture
During the Bush administration opponents of
torture enhanced interrogation techniques cited confabulation as one of the many problems with such "techniques." Loftus has also speculated that confabulation and its relation to torture played a significant part in perpetuating allegations and confessions of witchcraft in the early modern era.
The preponderance of the evidence points to these conclusions:
- Recovered memory theories are correct in some ways and incorrect in others. In the areas where recovered memory theories are correct (unconscious memories can be retrieved even after they cannot be explicitly recalled), they add extra complications by describing established knowledge in new terms. Where they are incorrect is that those with unrecovered traumatic memories will act in a way that is able to be differentiated from those with other dysfunctions, that recovered memories are more accurate or reliable on the whole, and that only certain types of therapy can recover them. Thus, the conception of recovered memories put forth by proponents of recovered memory therapy is descriptively useless.
- The evidence on how prevalent false versus recovered memories are is inconclusive or tentative at best. Common sense should prevail and accusations should neither be taken at face value nor dismissed as simply false memories without corroborating evidence.
Discarded hypotheses and memory woo
With current knowledge of psychology and neuroscience, these ideas can be dismissed as falsified or pseudoscientific.
Freud's concept of repressed memory presents even more complications than recovered memory. For one, there is no established mechanism of "repression" that can cut off a memory from conscious thought. Unconscious memories can definitely have an effect on how we think and feel; however, there's no reason to believe that these memories are "repressed" and can only be brought out in talk therapy. Unconscious and half-forgotten memories can be retrieved through standard retrieval cues (objects from childhood, revisiting old haunts, stories from relatives, etc.) and memory exercises if they still exist. Repressed memory also has the further disadvantage of being more susceptible to confabulation and confirmation bias. This is due to Freud's belief in denial, i.e., that people would deny the existence of their own mental dysfunctions. While denial is easy to test in cases of outward behavior (e.g. denying culpability for a crime while you were captured on camera), denial of internal disturbance or memories is unfalsifiable. If you admit you have a problem, then you have one. If you deny it, you must be in denial!
Body memory, also called cellular memory, is based on Freudian repression with added biology woo. This is the belief that human cells contain repressed memories. Obviously, this is unsupported by evidence and rather laughable as well.
Freud disciple Carl Jung believed that humanity's memories were stored collectively in the unconscious and that something akin to ideal Platonic forms were universal in this memory. Jung's ideas on memory are now considered to range from violating Occam's Razor to not even wrong.
This is what you get when you mix repressed memory with reincarnation. Even more out there than Freudian psychoanalysis. It's also interesting that so many people who do past-life regressions seem to have been Cleopatra or Caesar in their previous lives, never an army grunt or Dennis the Constitutional Peasant.
The basic concepts of L. Ron Hubbard's pseudopsychology of Dianetics are more or less rip-offs of Freud; just replace repressed memory with engram. (In fact, Hubbard acknowledged Freud in early editions until he went down the Admiral Hubbard route and erased the references, claiming his work to be not plagiarized.) There is the same grain of truth in Dianetics as there is in Freudian ideas and just about every self-help book ever, in that unconscious memories can affect our feelings, things associated with traumatic events can cause negative feelings, and that we need to face our fears to overcome them (this is called "exposure therapy" nowadays). However, these weren't exactly new ideas in Hubbard's time and he laced these basic concepts with mountains of pseudoscience. Not that you needed anyone to tell you that Scientology is bunk anyway.
Early ideas of flashbulb memories put forth postulated that these memories of events of historical or personal importance were encoded in some special way that they would be retained nearly perfectly. Questions like "Do you remember what you were doing the day JFK was assassinated/the Berlin Wall fell/9/11 happened/the COVID lockdown commenced?" are often associated with the concept. Ulric Neisser's research comparing diary entries written after historic events to attempted reproductions of these entries at multi-annual intervals is considered to be the definitive take-down of this concept. (Hint: The entries often didn't match very well, and some subjects' memories were so different they even denied that they had written the original entries.) While the term is still in use today, it is generally used to connote a highly vivid memory of personal importance and not a unique form of memory to itself.
Like flashbulb memories, the photographic (or "eidetic") memory is a myth. While some people have greater ability to memorize things and spend a monumental amount of time rehearsing some material to the point that it can be recited verbatim, no one has ever been found to have a completely infallible memory. Those with "photographic memory" tend to be better at "chunking" (breaking information into pieces) and have overlearned their material (i.e., rehearsed it to the point of perfection, and then rehearsed even more on top of that). A participant in one study who ran for the school track team, for example, increased his working memory capacity for numbers from about 7 digits to 79 digits by chunking them into record cross-country times. That said, some people have an extremely rare condition called hyperthymesia (also called "Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory") which grants them nearly perfect autobiographical memory (e.g. they can recall everything that happened to them in their lives with exceptional clarity)  but as far as current neuroscience can tell this appears to be an inherent quirk in how their brains process information rather than a learned skill- it's somewhat more precise to say that they don't have an improved memory so much as a greatly reduced capacity to forget things. Furthermore, these individuals also have noted that the inability to ever forget any of these autobiographical memories can cause as much harm as good, especially since they are often recalled involuntarily and uncontrollably.
You can find courses that will "teach" you how to have "photographic memory." Sometimes these are simply courses that give you tips in mnemonics and other rehearsal strategies that can improve memory but are labeled with "photographic memory" to boost sales. Many, however, are scams such as Kevin Trudeau's "Mega Memory System."
Hypnosis, meditation, and sedation
Hypnotherapy, meditation, and sedative medication are often advertised as a means of "finding" repressed memories, opening up your "third eye," regressing to a past life, reliving traumas, or some other woo. This is often mixed in with brainwave woo (usually something along the lines of needing "more" brainwaves of a certain type to "access" hidden memories). By putting the patient in a suggestible state and asking him to imagine something, it makes him more susceptible to a false memory, especially the fantasy-prone types. This sort of therapy is not based on science and ultimately a rip-off. (NB: Hypnosis, meditation, and sedation do have legitimate uses, but not for uncovering memories or proving reincarnation.)
- False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). (Note: the Organization was dissolved on December 31st 2019.)
- British False Memory Society (BFMS)
- False memories category at rickross.com
- The Recovered Memory Controversy (A bibliography of the "memory wars")
- Reconstructive Memory: Confabulating the Past, Simulating the Future, Neurophilosophy
- Researchers implant false symptoms, Mind Hacks
- The Complex Issues in Researching False Memory Syndrome, Kathryn Gow
- Mind Fiction: Why Your Brain Tells Tall Tales, New Scientist
- Freudian Flame Wars, Salon
- The End of a Delusion, Weekly Standard
- Recovered Memory Therapy, a collection of essays at Religious Tolerance
- Explaining Memory Wars, Prospect Magazine
- Freud's False Memories, in Richard Webster (1995), Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis
- Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
- Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
- The schema for the professor's office includes books, so most people will have written "books" on their lists even though no books are pictured. Another common mistake made by modern students is to list a computer, but the study was done in 1981, so you'll notice that there's only a typewriter on the desk.
- The Goldwater Rule and the FMSF (July 23rd, 2012) Recovered Memory Project
- Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology by Frederic Bartlett
- What Is Confabulation and How Does It Relate to Brain Injury? by Celeste Campbell (April 23, 2012) Brainline.
- DRM Effect, Jolene Kinley
- In the field of psychology, "confederate" is the technical term for a plant, or someone who is pretending to be a subject but is actually employed by the psychologist and is often following a script.
- Micah Edelson et al. Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity. Science 333, 108 (2011)
- For further detail on methods of confabulation, see: Johnson, Marcia K. et al. The Cognitive Neuroscience of True and False Memories. In True and False Recovered Memories: Toward a Reconciliation of the Debate, ed. R.F. Belli
- McMartin Ritual Abuse Cases, Religious Tolerance
- Can You Get Amnesia from a Blow to the Head?, The Straight Dope
- The Recovered Memory Project at Brown University keeps an archive of these cases.
- APA statement on memory
- Bremner, JD, JH Krystal, DS Charney and SM Southwick.Neural Mechanisms in dissociative amnesia for childhood abuse: relevance to the current controversy surrounding the "false memory syndrome". Am. J. Psychiatry 1996; 153:71-82. Please note this is behind a paywall, an abstract can be found Here.
- Gleaves, David H. and Steven M. Smith. False and Recovered Memories in the Laboratory and Clinic: A Review of Experimental and Clinical Evidence. Clin. Psychol. Sci. Prac. 11: 3–28, 2004
- Albach, Francine, Peter Paul Moormann, and Bob Bermond. Memory recovery of childhood sexual abuse. Dissociation Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec. 1996)
- Messing with Your Mind, Exploratorium
- Porter S, JC Yuille, and DR Lehman. The nature of real, implanted, and fabricated memories for emotional childhood events: implications for the recovered memory debate. Law Hum. Behav. 1999 Oct;23(5):517-37.
- Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002, p. 95.
- Clancy, Susan et al. Memory Distortion in People Reporting Abduction by Aliens. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2002, Vol. 111, No. 3, 455– 461.
- Memories - Are they made of this?, The Age
- See the reviews by Frederick Crews in the New York Review of Books (Part I and Part II) and Robert Sheaffer.
- Feminism, Fanaticism, and False Memories by Sigrid MacDonald, rickross.com
- McNally, Richard J. Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory. Can J Psychiatry, Vol 50, No 13, November 2005.
- Yates, Alayne. "False and Mistaken Allegations of Sexual Abuse." Ch. 15 in Review of Psychiatry, eds. Allan Tasman and Stephen M. Goldfinger, Alexandria, VA: APA Press, 1991.
- Bottoms, Bette L., Philip R. Shaver, and Gail S. Goodman. An analysis of ritualistic and religion-related child abuse allegations. LAW AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR Volume 20, Number 1, 1-34.
- FMSF Online
- Pope, Kenneth S. Memory, abuse, and science: Questioning claims about the false memory syndrome epidemic. American Psychologist, 51, 1996, 957-974.
- Inquiry into the Practice of Recovered Memory Therapy, Report by the Health Services Commissioner to the Minister for Health, the Hon. Bronwyn Pike MP, Sep. 2005
- Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager interview with Paidika
- Underwager, Ralph and Hollida Wakefield. Misinterpretation of a Primary Prevention Effort. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, vol. 6, 1994
- Underwager v. Salter, 22 F. 3d 730
- Two anti-FMSF groups: Leadership Council (more balanced, but with some mudslinging), S.M.A.R.T. (partisan and mostly interested in hyping ritual abuse and whatever crank ideas will support it)
- Lying About Torture, Daily Kos
- Loftus, Elizabeth. Remembering Dangerously. Volume 19.2, March / April 1995
- Cellular memory at the Skeptic's Dictionary
- Collective unconscious at the Skeptic's Dictionary
- Neisser, Ulric. (1982). "Snapshots or benchmarks", Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, ed. 43–48. See also this brief summary
- Is there such a thing as photographic memory?, Straight Dope
- Klingberg, Torkel. Training and Plasticity of Working Memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14 (2010) 317–324.
- A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering by Elizabeth S. Parker et al. (2005) Neurocase: The Neural Basis of Cognition 12(1) 35-49. doi: 10.1080/13554790500473680.
- Infomercial Marketers Settle FTC Charges, Federal Trade Commission
- See also: Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory. American Psychologist, Vol. 54. No. 3, 182-203, Mar. 1999