Confabulation: Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Confabulation is a fascinating memory disorder that leads a person to create false memories that they genuinely believe are true. Read this lesson to learn more about the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment options for confabulation.

What is Confabulation?

Emma visited her Grandpa at his assisted living home and asked him what he did the previous weekend. Her Grandpa told her stories of dancing all night with a beautiful lady and included details right down to the color of her dress! Emma had heard this story at least 100 times before; it was the story of when her Grandpa met her Grandma over 50 years ago. She smiled and listened as he talked because he was completely unaware that this wonderful weekend happened so long ago. He believed it had just happened. What is wrong with Emma's Grandpa? He is experiencing confabulation.

Confabulation is defined as the spontaneous creation of memories that never occurred or of actual events that have been distorted to another place and/or time. This is a memory disorder that results in the person not even realizing their memories are incorrect - like Emma's Grandpa, they genuinely believe what they are saying is true!

Types of Confabulation

There are two types of confabulation: provoked and spontaneous.

  • Provoked confabulation occurs when a person is asked a question that requires them to rely on their memory to answer.
  • Spontaneous confabulation occurs when the person is unprovoked, yet shares a supposedly autobiographical anecdote about something that happened to them. This type is less common than provoked confabulation and can result is some outlandish tales.

What Causes Confabulation?

Researchers are still investigating the mechanisms behind confabulation, but it's believed that damage to the brain can cause confabulation to develop. For example, damage to the forebrain affects memory, and damage to the frontal lobe affects self-awareness, explaining why the person doesn't realize their memories are inaccurate. Interestingly, some cases of confabulation resolve on their own over time as the brain heals itself, but other cases are more permanent.

Confabulation may also be a symptom of many different conditions, such as:

  • Korsakoff's syndrome
  • Anosognosia
  • Split-brain syndrome
  • Anton's syndrome
  • Capgras syndrome
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychosis
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Encephalitis
  • Brain tumors
  • Dementia

Symptoms of Confabulation

The only symptom of confabulation is the creation memories that are false or distorted; however, it's important to remember that the person suffering from confabulation has conviction in their memories - they believe these memories to be true. They often confuse imagination with memory and true memories are confused with false ones. Confabulation can also be triggered by stress and emotions.

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