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“I Swear It Happened!” But It Never Did…

Image 1- Ok, Gerard… 

Has someone ever told you a tale that made you think, “That just can’t be true!”. Well, you may be right. Here’s the thing, you may fondly remember your eighth birthday party at a local barn with a bunch of cute animals. You and your friends rode the horses, brushed the horses, and you even remember feeding the horses straight from your hand. Oh, and the cake! Your mother ordered a special strawberry shortcake for your birthday party. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, and you remember that party like it was yesterday. But the even more important thing is, none of this really happened.

In reality, you have never ridden a horse in your life and you are allergic to strawberries… Even when a childhood friend of yours gently reminds you that that never really happened, you still firmly believe (and can even remember specific details!) that your eighth birthday party happened exactly that way (Pederson, 2018). Your friend softly says to you, “You have created a confabulation”, to which you respond, “I’ve created a WHAT?!”

Image 2– Maybe… 

Confabulation is a memory disturbance that results in people reporting memories of events in their own personal history that actually never happened. Confabulations can take the form of small inaccuracies, such as simply filling in gaps in one’s memory with false details, or they can be large events, such as the horseback riding birthday party described earlier. Regardless of the magnitude of the memory, it is difficult to convince the person that their “memories” are false.

It is sometimes difficult to identify a confabulation because the person reporting the memory could seem very convincing and in touch with reality, but really the story is untrue (Shingaki et al., 2016). People who confabulate confidently describe imagined scenarios and present them as being completely true (Pederson, 2018). Another difficulty in identifying a confabulation is that a person’s autobiographical memory is generally quite difficult to study because if we did not experience the event with the person telling the story, then we can never really know if it actually happened or not. Even if we can’t thoroughly study someone’s episodic history, we can at least know that the person who experiences these confabulations is not purposefully deceiving you with inaccurate information. In fact, they wholeheartedly believe that what they are saying is the truth (Nall, 2017).

Now, in order to distinguish between false memories and confabulations, a crucial aspect of confabulations must be identified. False memories are highly deviant recollections of a previous event. False memories occur as a result of the reconstructive nature of memory, creating limitations and natural failures in our daily memory (McBride &Cutting, 2016). Everyone is guilty of having false memories sometimes, and even telling them as true stories to our friends.  However, confabulations often result from brain damage due to an injury, and often co-occur with conditions such as amnesia ad dementia. Research has also found that confabulations occur in people with neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Shakeel et. al., 2016). Confabulations are very unlikely to occur in young, healthy people. So if your younger sibling is telling you of an elaborate story that clearly never happened, they may just be having a false memory (or they could be just pulling your leg!).

Image 3– You caught me there!

As you may have gathered, the essential cognitive process that is involved in confabulations is memory. Specifically, confabulations are associated with an inability to retrieve information from one’s long-term memory (Barba et. al., 1999). Damage to certain parts of the brain, specifically the frontal lobe and related areas, prevents access to stored information, causing large gaps in one’s long-term memory. Some patients with this sort of damage tend to fill in these gaps with inaccurate information, which they believe to be their true memories. Confabulators believe all of their memories are true, making it impossible for them to differentiate between the memories that are true and the ones that are untrue. way to explain the inability to distinguish between real and imagined memories is a failure in source monitoring, meaning misattributing the source from which you gained a piece of information (Barba et. al., 1999). Evidence for the relationship between confabulation and source monitoring was discussed in a study done by Barba et al. which refers to confabulation as a form of “source amnesia” (Barba et. al., 1999). In their study, Barba, Nedjam, and Dubois compared performance on several tasks testing cognitive functioning between participants with Alzheimer’s disease and “normal” participants (Barba et. al., 1999). They found that even though performance on source monitoring tasks did not necessarily correlate to confabulatory tendencies, the participants with Alzheimer’s did demonstrate significantly impaired source monitoring abilities compared to the “normal” participants (Barba et. al., 1999). It is common to notice confabulations in people with injuries and conditions that affect their memory. Confabulations do not typically arise in “healthy” people whereas false memories are overwhelmingly common in everyone’s life.

Overall, confabulations do not necessarily occur in a person with typically functioning cognitive ability. However, it is still important to recognize which populations are prone to confabulating. Most people interact with people in these populations who confabulate, whether that be a grandparent who is developing dementia or a friend who has bipolar disorder. It is important to know that people who sometimes confabulate in order to make sense of their own memories are not lying. They simply believe that what they are saying is the truth! Learning about the causes and situations in which confabulations occur can allow us to be more understanding during an interaction with a person presenting a confabulation.



Barba, G. D., Nedjam, Z., & Dubois, B. (1999). Confabulation, executive functions, and source memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive Neuropsychology 1999, 16 (3/4/5), 385–398.

McBride, D. M. & Cutting, J. C. Cognitive (2016). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Boston. SAGE Publications.

Nall, R. (2017). Confabulation: What you should know. Healthline. Retrieved on April 26, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/health/confabulation.

Shakeel, M. K., Docherty, N. M., Rich, P. R., Zaragoza, M.S., Chrobak, Q. M., & McCleery A. (2016). Analyzing confabulations in schizophrenia and healthy participants. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society (2016), 22, 911–919.

Shingaki, H., Park, P., Ueda, K., Murai, T., & Tsukiura, T. (2016). Disturbance of time orientation, attention, and verbal memory in amnesic patients with confabulation. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, (2016) VOL. 38, NO. 2, 171–182.

Image 1 http://www.quickmeme.com/p/3vtrly

Image 2 https://imgflip.com/i/1xbt3e

Image 3 http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3r4jix

  1. zwang21
    May 16th, 2018 at 00:25 | #1

    This is a great post! I really like how you explained confabulation and distinguished it from false memory. I learned that confabulation usually only occurs within people with brain damage. Since I’m also taking abnormal psychology this term, I have studied mental disorder such as bipolar disorder and dementia, which are related to the occurrence of confabulation. Therefore, it is really interesting for me to see a post that relate two field of psychology, cognitive and abnormal, together. I really like how you conclude the post, indicating that the understanding of confabulation can help us to have better communications with people with such defect.

  2. May 18th, 2018 at 10:45 | #2

    This is a really interesting post!I was not aware that there was a difference between confabulation and false memory, but you explained it very well. The most important aspect of both of these topics is that people are extremely confident in the accuracy of these memories. This applies to flashbulb memories for emotional events, where people are very confident that they remember experiences exactly how they occurred, but studies have shown that the accuracy for these memories is only around 25%.

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