Confabulation

Posted on November 16, 2016

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Confabulation, Confabulation, It’s making me late. It’s keeping me waiting. (Okay, that’s not quite what Carly Simon wrote.)

About five or six years ago, I quit buying books in print and switched over to an e-reader.  On the whole, I like it a lot better.  I don’t have to deal with the accumulation of books stacking up on my nightstand, bookcase, and around the house.  If you are going on vacation and you need your Bible, the novel you are reading, and whatever you are reading for work, you are carrying one six ounce device instead of ten pounds of books.  Another benefit is that if you are reading along and come to a word with which you are not familiar, you just press on the word and tap “look up,” and it gives you the definition.

I was recently reading Rising Strong by Brene Brown and came upon the word confabulation.  In the book, Dr. Brown observed that it is in the nature of human beings to use stories to make sense of our world.  In everything from conspiracy theories to work situations to interpersonal relationships, we (often unconsciously) tell ourselves a story to interpret the data we have and fill in the gaps.  In the medical field, the term for this is confabulation. 

Confabulation is “the unconscious filling of gaps in one’s memory by fabrications that one accepts as facts.”  In this discussion, this is not so much about gaps in memory as it is gaps in information that we have.  We tell ourselves a story that fits the data we have and our experience.

Let’s try an example.  You are driving through moderate traffic, and another driver tailgates, speeds, and cuts between other cars.  When you have experienced this, you probably told yourself a story about the other driver.  The most common story would involve attributing character traits to the driver based upon his (or her)[1] driving.  The driver is reckless, inconsiderate, entitled.  Or maybe you just gave him a label like “jerk.” or “Adam Henry.[2]”  Let’s offer another possibility, maybe this person has an emergency (e.g. wife in active labor on the way to the hospital).  If we wanted to be more fanciful, we could go with the plot from Speed, if they drop below a certain speed, it will trigger the bomb.

The point is that we tell ourselves stories to fill in what we don’t know.  And we do this many times without even thinking about it or knowing we are doing it.  It makes sense that we would do this.  It serves us well in life and helps us make sense of our experiences.  The problem is that sometimes we are wrong, and we rarely check to see if our stories are accurate.

This happens frequently in marriages.  We take the things our partners says (or doesn’t say) or does (or doesn’t do), and we tell ourselves a story.  Your partner comes home and seems disengaged from you.  The story you tell yourself might be that he or she is mad at you.  Worse yet, the story you tell yourself might be that your partner is no longer interested in you and the relationship.  The truth might be that your partner is preoccupied with worry over something that happened at work.

One of the most common things that brings couples into therapy is “communication issues.”  When we have that first session, I usually find that they are both excellent communicators.  The problem is that they are stuck in a negative cycle of interaction.  As they describe their arguments, one of the common questions I ask is, “When that happens what is it you tell yourself about the relationship in that moment?”  Frequently, the answer is along the lines of “You don’t care about me.  I don’t matter.”  Or sometimes it is about their partner’s character trait, “He/she is just selfish.”

The point is that there is a story that you tell yourself about what is happening, and that story may well be wrong.  A good first step here is to ask yourself about the story you tell yourself because you may not have really thought about it.  Once you understand that story yourself, you can test it with your partner.  This will usually go better if you are not in a heated discussion at the time.  It might sound something like this, “When you say/do x, the story I tell myself is y.[3]”  If your partner can hear that from you and clarify, this can be tremendously helpful.

We can apply this concept to a couple’s sex life as well.  The first time the husband has difficulty sustaining an erection, the stories the wife frequently tells herself are 1) he no longer finds me attractive because I am looking old or have put on weight, or 2) he is having an affair and getting his sexual needs met elsewhere.  In all likelihood, neither of these is the correct story.  The more likely story is 1) he is worried about something having nothing to do with her, 2) it is normal aging that it takes longer to get an erection and he will not be as turgid as he was when he was young, or 3) he is worried about her reaction and is putting pressure on himself to perform.[4]  In the research from John and Julie Gottman, one of the things that separated the masters of relationship from the disasters in the ability to talk about their sex life together as a couple.  This is another area in which being able to reality test the story you tell yourself can be helpful.

Human beings confabulate.  We take our experience and we make a story about what is going on.  This is an adaptive way to understand our world and organize our experience.  The problem comes when we fill in the gaps with erroneous assumptions.  Acknowledging the story to ourselves and then reality testing it with our partners can help us get out of our negative cycles and avoid or relieve relationship distress.

[1] You first pictured a man, didn’t you?

[2] If you don’t know what that means, ask a cop.

[3] Of course if the story you tell yourself is that your partner is despicable, you can expect that this will not land well.

[4] There have also been studies linking erectile dysfunction to porn use.

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