Confabulation is the process where a memory is remembered falsely.[1] The process of remembering is a complicated and intricate process that can be lead astray at any given point.[2] These false memories most often occur in autobiographical memory.[3] Two distinct types of confabulation are often distinguished. Spontaneous, or primary, confabulations do not occur in response to a cue[4] and seem to be involuntary.[3] Provoked, or secondary, confabulations occur in response to something external,[3] like a memory test.[4] Another distinction found in confabulations is that between verbal and behavioral. Verbal confabulations are spoken false memories and are more common, while behavioral confabulations occur when an individual acts on their false memories.[3] A final characteristic of confabulations is the fact that people genuinely believe their false memory, despite evidence contradicting its truthfulness.[2]


Methods of Measuring Confabulation

Spontaneous confabulations, due to their involuntary nature, cannot be manipulated in a laboratory setting. However, provoked confabulations can be researched in various theoretical contexts. The mechanisms found to underlie provoked confabulations can then be manipulated to apply to spontaneous confabulation mechanisms.[3] The basic premise of researching confabulation comprises finding errors and distortions in memory tests of an individual. In 1993, Dalla Barba actually created a battery of 7 types of questions with criteria to detect confabulations in general semantic memory, personal semantic memory, personal episodic memory, etc.[5]

Confabulations can be detected in the context of the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm by using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott lists.[6] Participants listen to audio recordings of several lists of words centered on a theme, known as the critical word. The participants are later asked to recall the words on their list. If the participant recalls the critical word, it is considered a confabulation. Participants often have a false memory for the critical word.

Confabulations can also be researched in the context of the strategic retrieval theory by using recognition tasks and free recall tasks. Examples include continuous recognition tasks for content and time, semantic narrative tasks, and autobiographical recognition paradigm tasks, used in conjunction with confidence ratings.[3] Generally, in a recognition task, participants are rapidly presented with pictures. Some of these pictures are shown once; others are shown multiple times. Participants press a key if they have seen the picture previously. Following a period of time, participants repeat the task. More errors on the second task, versus the first, are indicative of confusion, representing false memories. Generally, in a free recall task, participants are asked to recall stories (semantic or autobiographical) that are highly familiar to them. The stories recalled are encoded for errors that could be classified as distortions, etc. that would be representative of confabulations.[3]

Theories of Confabulation

Theories on confabulations range in emphasis. Some argue confabulations have a self-serving, emotional component that aids to maintain a coherent, self-concept.[4] Other researchers propose neurocognitive explanations;[7] and others attribute confabulation to epistemic accounts.[8] Still others propose that all types of false memories, including confabulation, fit into a general memory and executive function model.[9]

Nevertheless, the most popular theories of confabulation are those of poor temporality recognition, general deficits in monitoring, and problems in strategic retrieval.[4] Support for the temporality account suggests that confabulations occur when an individual is unable to place events properly in time. Thus, an individual might correctly state an action they performed, but say they did it yesterday, when they did it weeks ago. In the Memory, Consciousness, and Temporality Theory, confabulation occurs because of a deficit in temporal consciousness or awareness.[10] Along a similar notion are the theories of reality and source monitoring theories. In these theories, confabulation occurs when individuals incorrectly attribute memories as reality, or incorrectly attribute memories to a certain source.[3] Thus, an individual might claim an imagined event happened in reality, or that their friend told them about an event, they actually heard about on television. Finally, support for the strategic retrieval account suggests that confabulations occur when an individual is unable to actively monitor a memory for truthfulness after its retrieval.[3] An individual recalls a memory, but there is some deficit after recall that interferes with the person establishing its falseness.

However, not all accounts are so embedded in the neurocognitive aspects of confabulation. In 2009, theories underlying the causation and mechanisms for confabulation were criticized for their focus on neural processes, which are somewhat unclear, as well as their emphasis on the negativity of false remembering. Researchers proposed that an epistemic account of confabulation would be more encompassing of both the advantages and disadvantages of the process.[8]

In 2007, a framework for confabulation was proposed that stated confabulation is the result of two things: problems with executive control and problems with evaluation. In the executive control deficit, the incorrect memory is retrieved from the brain. In the evaluative deficit, the memory will be accepted as a truth due to an inability to distinguish a belief from an actual memory.[4]

Recent models of confabulation have attempted to build upon the link between delusion and confabulation.[11] More recently, a monitoring account for confabulation (and delusion) proposed both the inclusion of conscious and unconscious processing. The claim was that by encompassing the notion of both processes, spontaneous versus provoked confabulations could be better explained. In other words, there are two ways to confabulate. One is the unconscious, spontaneous way in which a memory goes through no logical, explanatory processing. The other is the conscious, provoked way in which a memory is recalled intentionally by the individual to explain something confusing or unusual.[12]


Provoked versus Spontaneous

Research has thus been inconclusive in determining whether or not to distinguish between provoked and spontaneous confabulation. However, one study suggests that, at least in the case of amnesiacs, provoked and spontaneous confabulations are products of different cognitive mechanisms.[13] This study suggests that spontaneous confabulation may be a result of an amnesic patient’s inability to distinguish the chronological order of events in his memory. In contrast, the research specifies that provoked confabulation may be a compensatory mechanism, in which the patient tries to make up for his memory deficiency by attempting to demonstrate competency in recollection, which will often be marked by confabulations.

Issues of Age

Children are particularly susceptible to forced confabulations. When forced to recall, confabulated events, children are less likely to remember that they had previously confabulated these situations, and they are more likely than their adult counterparts to come to remember these confabulations as real events that transpired.[14] Research suggests that this inability to distinguish between past confabulatory and real events is centered on developmental differences in source monitoring (add link to source monitoring here). Children may have underdeveloped encoding skills and/or critical reasoning skills that may impair their abilities to distinguish real memories from false (confabulated) memories. It may also be the case that children are less likely to retrieve the appropriate information necessary for distinguishing real from confabulatory experience.

Abnormal Psychopathology

Confabulations are often marked symptoms of various syndromes and psychopathologies in the adult population including: Korsakoff's syndrome , Alzheimer’s Disease, Schizophrenia, and brain damage.

Korsakoff's Syndrome

A study on confabulation in Korsakoff’s patients found that they are subject to provoked confabulation when prompted with questions pertaining to episodic memory, not semantic memory, and when prompted with questions where the appropriate response would be “I don’t know.”[15] This suggests that confabulation in these patients is “domain-specific.” Korsakoff’s patients who confabulate are more likely to falsely recognize distractor words than healthy adults, suggesting that false recognition is a “confabulatory behavior.”

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s patients demonstrate comparable abilities to encode information as healthy elderly adults, suggesting that impairments in encoding are not associated with confabulation.[16] As seen in Korsakoff patients, confabulation in Alzheimer’s patients is higher when prompted with questions investigating episodic memory. Researchers suggest this is due to damage to the posterior cortical regions of the brain which is a symptom characteristic of Alzheimer’s Disease.


Unlike other diseases, schizophrenics are more likely to confabulate when prompted with questions regarding their semantic memories, as opposed to episodic memory prompting.[17] Further, confabulation doesn’t appear to be related to any memory deficit in schizophrenic patients, which is contrary to most forms of confabulation. Also, unlike other confabulations, schizophrenic confabulations less often involve the creation of new information, but instead involve an attempt of the patient to “reconstruct” actual details of a past event.

Physical Brain Trauma

Patients with damage to the inferior medial frontal lobe confabulated significantly more than those with damage in the posterior area and healthy controls.[18] This suggests that this region is key in producing confabulatory responses, and that memory deficit is important but not necessary for confabulation.


  1. ^ Berrios, German E. (1 December 1998). "Confabulations: A Conceptual History". Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 7 (3): 225–241. doi:10.1076/jhin. 
  2. ^ a b Nalbantian, edited by Suzanne; Matthews,, Paul M., McClelland, James L. (2010). The memory process : neuroscientific and humanistic perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01457-1. 
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  4. ^ a b c d e Metcalf, Kasey; Langdon, Robyn, Coltheart, Max (1 February 2007). "Models of confabulation: A critical review and a new framework". Cognitive Neuropsychology 24 (1): 23–47. doi:10.1080/02643290600694901. 
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  6. ^ Howe, Mark L.; Cicchetti, Dante, Toth, Sheree L., Cerrito, Beth M. (NaN undefined NaN). "True and False Memories in Maltreated Children". Child Development 75 (5): 1402–1417. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00748.x. 
  7. ^ Glowinski, Remy; Payman, Vahid, Frencham, Kate (1 January 2008). "Confabulation: a spontaneous and fantastic review". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 42 (11): 932–940. doi:10.1080/00048670802415335. 
  8. ^ a b Bortolotti, Lisa; Cox, Rochelle E. (1 December 2009). "‘Faultless’ ignorance: Strengths and limitations of epistemic definitions of confabulation". Consciousness and Cognition 18 (4): 952–965. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2009.08.011. 
  9. ^ Kopelman, Michael D. (1 May 1999). "VARIETIES OF FALSE MEMORY". Cognitive Neuropsychology 16 (3-5): 197–214. doi:10.1080/026432999380762. 
  10. ^ Dalla Barba, Gianfranco; Boissé, Marie-Françoise (1 January 2010). "Temporal consciousness and confabulation: Is the medial temporal lobe "temporal"?". Cognitive Neuropsychiatry 15 (1-3): 95–117. doi:10.1080/13546800902758017. 
  11. ^ Kopelman, Michael D. (1 January 2010). "Varieties of confabulation and delusion". Cognitive Neuropsychiatry 15 (1-3): 14–37. doi:10.1080/13546800902732830. 
  12. ^ Turner, Martha; Coltheart, Max (1 January 2010). "Confabulation and delusion: A common monitoring framework". Cognitive Neuropsychiatry 15 (1-3): 346–376. doi:10.1080/13546800903441902. 
  13. ^ Schnider, Armin; von Däniken, Christine, Gutbrod, Klemens (NaN undefined NaN). "The mechanisms of spontaneous and provoked confabulations". Brain 119 (4): 1365–1375. doi:10.1093/brain/119.4.1365. 
  14. ^ Ackil, Jennifer K.; Zaragoza, Maria S. (NaN undefined NaN). "Memorial consequences of forced confabulation: Age differences in susceptibility to false memories.". Developmental Psychology 34 (6): 1358–1372. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.34.6.1358. 
  15. ^ Damme, Ilse; d'Ydewalle, Géry (NaN undefined NaN). "Confabulation versus experimentally induced false memories in Korsakoff patients". Journal of Neuropsychology 4 (2): 211–230. doi:10.1348/174866409X478231. 
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  17. ^ LORENTE-ROVIRA, E.; SANTOS-GÓMEZ, J.L., MORO, M., VILLAGRÁN, J.M., MCKENNA, P.J. (NaN undefined NaN). "Confabulation in schizophrenia: A neuropsychological study". Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 16 (06): 1018–1026. doi:10.1017/S1355617710000718. 
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