Confabulation and Forgiveness

In psychology to “confabulate” means to fabricate a reason for something in order to rationalise our behaviour when in fact the behaviour has an unconscious cause. Most of you will think this is an academic concept that has little application to normal human behaviour. Surprisingly it is a very common human phenomenon. As the good Dr Phil often reminds me the human mind is not rational but rationalising.

And yet it is probably best illustrated by reference to people operating in unusual circumstances.

I remember reading a story about Franz Mesmer, who was the populariser in modern times of hypnotism. Mesmer purportedly worked in conjunction with a psychiatrist. When people came to see the psychiatrist, Mesmer would instruct the patient under hypnotic suggestion that on leaving the psychiatrist’s office, the patient should remove one of the umbrellas which were placed in the umbrella stand adjacent to the door. When the patient duly did so Mesmer would ask, “Why are you doing that?” Intriguingly, the patient would always find an answer.

One might say, “I wanted to examine the handle. It has such an intricate design.” Or, “It reminded me of an umbrella my mother used to have.” And so on.

And yet of course the subject had no volition at all in performing the act of picking up the umbrella. They were “programmed” to do so by hypnotic suggestion. But the mind, always wanting to seem to be in control, developed reasonably plausible answers to explain the behaviour.

Let us look at an even more bizarre example.

In the early 1950’s it was sometimes practice, in order to suppress severe epileptic seizures, to sever the corpus callosum. The two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex are linked by the corpus callosum, through which they communicate and coordinate. This rather grotesque intervention resulted in people who had essentially a left brain and a right brain with very limited ability to communicate with each other. In the late 1950’s, two researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry studied those unfortunates who had been subjected to this drastic procedure and as a consequence learnt about the unique functions of the left and right brain hemispheres. I don’t want to dwell on those particular findings which have been extensively reported (and often overstated in the writings of the pop-psychologists).

What I wanted to demonstrate to you is how the experiments on split brain subjects confirmed again the power of confabulation. There were many instances, but let me relate one which is typical. Neuroscientists devised clever mechanisms in which information is provided to just one hemisphere. In one experiment the right hemisphere was exposed to pictures of naked people. This caused a change in behaviour, typically embarrassed giggling. When the subjects of the experiment were asked to explain their behaviour they need to gain the assistance of the left brain which has been deprived of the information accessible to the right brain. So realising that the body is laughing but being unaware of the stimulus to the right brain they would confabulate a response. As an example one response was, “I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doctor!”

Whilst the examples I gave above are rather dramatic, when it comes to our own behaviour we are inveterate confabulators. Fiery Cushman, Assistant Professor, Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Science, Brown University writes:

“We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behaviour. The explanations we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated and certainly never complete. Yet that is how it feels; instead, it feels as though we know exactly what we’re doing and why.”

As we have discussed in the past, largely through the impacts of our genetics and our social conditioning we lay down an array of behavioural responses. Then in response to our environmental circumstances we act out a particular response that those circumstances seem to demand. This response is not a conscious decision but an automatic response. The rationalising mind then, always wanting to seem to be in control (i.e. exercising “free will”), will confabulate a reason for the behaviour.

It is bad enough that we are unable to reliably determine the motivation of our own behaviour, but the problem is exacerbated when we attempt to delineate the motivation of the behaviour of others.

Generally we jump to the conclusion that others’ behaviours reflect their bad motives and poor judgment, attributing conscious choice to behaviours that have probably been determined unconsciously. Yet on the other hand we assume our own choices were guided solely by the conscious explanations we conjure, and we reject or ignore the possibility that we may have unconscious biases of our own.

Let us go back to Cushman again. He writes:

“By understanding confabulation, we can begin to remedy both faults. We can hold others responsible for their behaviour without impugning their conscious motivation. And we can hold ourselves more responsible by inspecting our own behaviour for its unconscious influences, as unseen as they are unwanted.”

So there you go my friends. Whilst it is a salutary lesson to learn that you have little idea why you behave the way you do, the world would be a better place if you understood that you have little idea why others behave the way they do as well! Maybe through the crack that acknowledgment of this ignorance provides we might let a little more forgiveness into our lives!