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Mnemonic Confabulation

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

Clinical use of the term “confabulation” began as a reference to false memories in dementia patients. The term has remained in circulation since, which belies shifts in its definition and scope over time. “Confabulation” now describes a range of disorders, deficits, and anomalous behaviors. The increasingly wide and varied use of this term has prompted many to ask: what is confabulation?




Clinical use of the term “confabulation” began as a reference to false memories in dementia patients. The term has remained in circulation since, which belies shifts in its definition and scope over time. “Confabulation” now describes a range of disorders, deficits, and anomalous behaviors. The increasingly wide and varied use of this term has prompted many to ask: what is confabulation? In recent years, many have offered answers to this question. As a general rule, recent accounts are accounts of broad confabulation: attempts to unify the seemingly disparate features of all or most confabulatory phenomena under a shared set of characteristics or mechanisms. In this paper, I approach the question differently. I focus on a particular form of confabulation—mnemonic confabulation—so as to understand its distinctive features and the ways in which it does (or does not) fit into accounts of broad confabulation. Understanding mnemonic confabulation is a project in the philosophy of memory; it plays an important role in guiding theories of remembering, as a form of error that must be distinguished from genuine remembering. Mnemonic confabulation, as I define it in Sect. 2, occurs when there is no relation between a person’s seeming to remember a particular event or experience and any event or experience from their past—either because there is no such event in their past or because any similarity to such an event is entirely coincidental. This account draws on my own theory of remembering, but shares many important points of consensus with other accounts of mnemonic confabulation, which I highlight in Sect. 3. In Sect. 4, I turn to accounts of broad confabulation—identifying three features such accounts have in common—and, for each, I argue that mnemonic confabulation lacks the requisite feature. As an error, mnemonic confabulation has more in common with perceptual hallucination than with the confabulatory phenomena included in standard accounts of broad confabulation. Recognizing that, despite the shared use of the term “confabulation” mnemonic confabulation and broad forms of confabulation are unrelated, is important for continued progress in debates about each.


Robins, S.K. (forthcoming, available online). Mnemonic Confabulation. Topoi. doi: 10.1007/s11245-018-9613-x


Full Paper (OA) here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11245-018-9613-x


A discussion of my motivations for the paper on Imperfect Cognitions: http://imperfectcognitions.blogspot.com/2019/05/mnemonic-confabulation.html

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Philosophy Department

University of Kansas 

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