The Frontal Cortex

BS Syndrome

Over at Neurophilosphy, there’s a wonderful post on “confabulatory hypermnesia,” or severe false memory syndrome:

In the journal Cortex, researchers describe the case of a patient with severe memory loss who has a tendency to invent detailed and perfectly plausible false memories (confabulations) in response to questions to which most people would answer “I don’t know”, such as the one above. They have named this unusual condition confabulatory hypermnesia, and believe that theirs is the first study to document it.

For example, when asked about his brother’s job, he told the researchers that “Remy is an artist who works in variety shows”, confusing his brother with his son, who actually does work as an artist in variety shows; when asked “What month is it?”, he answered “The end of December”, when it was in fact April; to the question “What happened in May 1968?”, he responded with “It was the beginning of of the workmen’s revolution; the government opposed Africa”; when probed about what he thought would be the most important advance in space exploration in the next 10 years, he he replied “We will land on the Moon and…see if it is habitable”; and when asked to tell the researchers what he would be doing that evening, he presponded with “I’ll have dinner with my wife and then watch the television news”, despite the fact that he was hospitalized at the time, and that there was no television on his ward.

Most strikingly, LM confabulated plausible answers to questions about both his personal life and public events, which would normally elicit from most people an answer of “I don’t know”. When the researchers asked him “Who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980?” he replied “Fernandel”; when asked what he had for dinner on Tuesday two weeks ago, he answered “Steak with french fries”; and when asked “Do you remember what you did on March 13th, 1985?” he replied “We spent the day at the Senart Forest.”

Sounds rather bizarre, right? We like to believe that our memories are honest and accurate and that our confabulations aren’t, well, confabulations. But we’re wrong on both counts. We all have a lot more in common with LM than we’d like to believe.

Look, for instance, at memory reconsolidation. Although we tend to imagine our memories as immutable impressions, like a data file stored on a computer hard drive, our memories are actually part of a ceaseless process. Every time we remember anything, the neuronal structure of the memory is delicately transformed, a process called reconsolidation. (Freud called this process Nachtraglichkeit, or “retroactivity”.) The memory is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what you remember and more about you. This is why even flashbulb memories – those recollections that seem permanently etched into the hippocampus – are so inaccurate, as this paper makes clear:

On September 12, 2001, 54 Duke students recorded their memory of first hearing about the terrorist attacks of September 11 and of a recent everyday event. They were tested again either 1, 6, or 32 weeks later. Consistency for the flashbulb and everyday memories did not differ, in both cases declining over time. However, ratings of vividness, recollection, and belief in the accuracy of memory declined only for everyday memories. Initial visceral emotion ratings correlated with later belief in accuracy, but not consistency, for flashbulb memories. Initial visceral emotion ratings predicted later posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. Flashbulb memories are not special in their accuracy, as previously claimed, but only in their perceived accuracy.

We’re no better when it comes to confabulations. Consider this moral scenario, which was first invented by Jonathan Haidt, at the University of Virginia. Julie and Mark are siblings vacationing together in the South of France. One night, after a lovely day spent exploring the local countryside, they share a delicious dinner and few bottles of red wine. One thing leads to another and Julie and Mark decide to have sex. Although she’s on the pill, Mark uses a condom just in case. They enjoy themselves very much, but decide not to have sex again. The siblings promise to keep the one night affair secret and discover, over time, that having sex has brought them even closer together. Did Julie and Mark do something wrong?

If you’re like most people, your first reaction is that the brother and sister committed a grave sin. What they did was very wrong. When Haidt asks people to explain their harsh moral judgment, the most common reasons given are the risk of having kids with genetic abnormalities and the possibility that sex will damage the sibling relationship. At this point, Haidt politely points out that Mark and Julie used two types of birth control and that having sex actually improved their relationship. But the facts of the case don’t matter. Even when their arguments are disproved, people still cling to the belief that having sex with your brother or sister is somehow immoral. In other words, they confabulate reasons to justify their moral intuition.

Eventually, of course, people run out of reasons. That’s when people start saying things like “Because it’s just wrong to have sex with your sister” or “Because it’s disgusting, that’s why!” Haidt calls this state “moral dumbfounding”. We know something is morally wrong⎯sibling sex is a terrible idea⎯but we can’t rationally defend our verdict. According to Haidt, this simple story about sibling sex illuminates the two separate processes at work inside the mind. On the one hand, we’ve got an unconscious stuffed full of powerful emotions and visceral instincts, which generate the initial verdict. In the case of Julie and Mark, it refuses to believe that having sex with a sibling is morally permissible, no matter how many forms of birth control are used. In the case of LM, it sent out a mistaken signal that a memory existed when it did not. So what does our consciousness do? It has to explain the verdict and justify the feeling of remembering. It provides us with reasons and details, but those confabulations all come after the fact.


  1. #1 G. Randolph Mayes
    June 2, 2009

    Haidt’s work is interesting, but the incest example is still highly problematic. People may be responding that what the brother and sister did was wrong because of the risk of pregnancy or the risk of damaging their relationship. The fact that these did not occur is not relevant when we assess the morality of our actions in this way. That would be like saying the pilot did nothing wrong when she ignored safety protocols, because after all the plane landed safely.

  2. #2 Jim Ward
    June 2, 2009

    No, it is not like saying “the pilot did nothing wrong when she ignored safety protocols, because after all the plane landed safely”. In the example, the sister and brother did follow safety protocols by using two forms of birth control.

  3. #3 DR
    June 2, 2009

    What the siblings did by committing incest or what a pilot might do by ignoring rules of aircraft operation are both wrong without respect to the outcome of their actions, but no confabulation is required to plausibly explain why the pilot was wrong. There is no unreason involved in aviation regulation. The incest taboo, on the other hand, is not a rational construct, but a socially reinforced and beneficial human trait. The fact that we can name its benefits does not explain the taboo, but it does explain the rules for pilots. Just as there’s no “reasonable” explanation for why someone is or isn’t inclined toward heterosexual sex, there’s no real reason to be offered for adhering to the incest taboo. When pressed, especially in an academic laboratory where reason is the purported currency, subjects will either have to be comfortable with their first response (“Eeww!”), or say “I don’t know,” or confabulate something. Jonah is interested in what he might call the “I don’t know” taboo of human psychology/neurology.

  4. #4 Joseph
    June 2, 2009

    Interesting and tragically apropos. :/

  5. #5 G. Randolph Mayes
    June 2, 2009

    Jim, yes I understand that they did take precautions. It is perhaps a poorly chosen analogy, but my point was that when the brother and sister choose to have sex, despite taking precautions, they are deliberately raising the likelihood of an unwanted child and of hurting their relationship (the precautions are not foolproof), just as a pilot deliberately raises the likelihood of an accident by failing to engage in the safety protocol. In both cases, the fact that the consequences do not occur is not relevant to someone who thinks of morality of the action in terms of the principle followed, not simply the results that happen to occur. And most of us do think that way to some extent.

    DR, I take your point as well. But notice how this extends to all moral action. Most people perform moral actions on an instinctive basis, following their moral sense, conscience, training or whatever. Even if they could give a clear rationale for, say, jumping in front of a train to save an old woman, that is surely not what motivates them. So what we are describing in pathological terms here with the word “confabulation” is really just the age old question whether the rules we cite in explaining/rationalizing any of our actions really play a causal role in those actions.

  6. #6 Isabel
    June 2, 2009

    Jim, how did they take precautions against hurting their relationship? I think they took a huge risk, and I suspect that like probably many others, I didn’t really buy the “it made their relationship stronger” line. Furthermore, they now share a secret that could hurt others if it is revealed. I think people may just be inarticulate about why they remain unconvinced. I think this is a very confusing illustration of what started out to be an interesting topic!

  7. #7 oscar zoalaster
    June 2, 2009

    The prevalence of confabulations in the responses to the post is interesting.

  8. #8 Ray Ingles
    June 3, 2009

    Oscar, I don’t think Isabel’s ‘confabulating’, I agree with her – sex is a major relationship issue with humans, and should not be entered into lightly.

    Plus, consider another analogy: Julie has a strong desire to kill Mark. She knows this is wrong, and doesn’t want to act on this impulse… but if she could find a way to express it then she feels she could let go of it.

    So, she gets a rifle and takes up a concealed position across from Mark’s house. She makes sure the rifle is unloaded, and keeps the safety on, but she draws a bead on Mark’s head when he walks out the door and pulls the trigger. Mark is totally unaware of the whole thing and drives off. Afterward, she feels better and is able to unburder herself of her compulsion.

    Now, did she do anything wrong? I’d say yes. Even with precautions, you don’t point a gun at someone unless you are prepared to shoot them, with the potentially fatal consequences that entails. As anyone who’s studied gun safety will tell you, “there’s no such thing as an unloaded gun”. (If you disagree, put yourself – or, say, your child – in Mark’s place…)

    When it comes to (heterosexual) sex, even with birth control, I’m of the opinion that you don’t have sex with someone unless you are prepared to father/bear a child with them. There’s no such thing as an unloaded… well.

  9. #9 Ray Ingles
    June 3, 2009

    They have named this unusual condition confabulatory hypermnesia, and believe that theirs is the first study to document it.

    I’m positive I read of this years ago in a book by Oliver Sacks. It wasn’t “The Lost Mariner” in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, but another patient with memory issues who compulsively confabulated. I’ll have to look it up when I get home tonight.

  10. #10 jhn
    June 3, 2009

    I have to agree with the comments here. No doubt the taboo against incest is biological and not founded in reason, but events occurring after an event can have no bearing on whether it was moral at the time.

  11. #11 Hydraulic valves
    June 15, 2009

    understand that they did take precautions.

  12. #12 Peter Lund
    June 15, 2009

    The confabulatory hypermnesia is not all that different from what happens with split-brain patients. Or under hypnosis. Or under certain drugs.

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