Confabulation, or making shit up

1 Oct
Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing: making shit up?

Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:

“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”

In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.

‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’

And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.

In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.

Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.

So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.

 

 

3 Responses to “Confabulation, or making shit up”

  1. Bill Herbert October 1, 2015 at 09:21 #

    If memory is a combination of intentional and unintentional confabulation, then everything we think has happened to us up to our experience of this present moment – which is, even in its few seconds of opportunity, overshadowed by how we have come to regard such opportunities – is story.

    The question then becomes: why do we trust story to the extent of supposing that what it makes of our memories and experiences is sense? Is it even possible not to, as Strawsen claims ‘episodics’ (among whom I rank myself) do? That’s what Previous Bill tells me I think, anyway.

    (Been worriting about this in relation to Leonora Carrington and ‘narrativeness’ lately – more soon on my blog, hopefully.)

    • richardgwyn October 1, 2015 at 09:38 #

      Hmm. So you’re an Episodic, Bill? I had to look that up (have just downloaded Strawson’s ‘Against Narrativity’ http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/against_narrativity.pdf
      Previous Bill is going to get his face smacked when Future Bill catches up with him then.
      Look forward to what you have to say about it in relation to Leonora C.

  2. proxy free list June 22, 2017 at 02:30 #

    Hi there,I log on to your blogs named “Confabulation, or making shit up | Ricardo Blanco’s Blog” like every week.Your writing style is awesome, keep up the good work! And you can look our website about proxy free list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: