Confabulation and Identity

When I first learned what confabulation meant it commonly referred to memory disturbances in alcoholics. Reading the definition again recently, it struck me how similar it is to the modern understanding of how memory actually works in all of us. Research in the intervening years has shown that, far from being a cinematic record, events are inaccurately perceived and sketchily retained, revised every time they’re recalled, rely on only a basic framework to represent an event then filling in details based on more recent experience, and all colored by the current emotional state. In other words, confabulated.

A number of consciousness researchers have pointed out that what you think of as “you” is almost entirely the result of autobiographical memory. That reliance on memory leads to something interesting: Since those memories are all confabulated to some degree, what does that say about your self conception? Though the way we remember things makes it seem otherwise, your traits and character change over time, with the quirks of memory allowing the illusion of an unchanging self which binds it all together.

The past is said to define you, but the past as you remember it is also largely a bunch of confabulated BS. Don’t let that BS limit you. We are all living lies of our own creation, modified with each recollection, and our autobiographical memory like a film we’ve stitched together from details both real and invented. If you don’t like how things are going, it’s time to change the script.

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