Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Redeeming Confabulation

Originally posted on August 3, 2017

The word “confabulation” refers to an unconscious process that seems real, and makes whatever seem plausible. It partakes of what we do in our dreams: It all can seem so real. (The word for seeming real is  “verisimilitude.”) I’m not saying that  people  consciously make up stuff. The unconscious does this effortlessly, and more thoroughly, and it all seems real. One is not even aware that it’s not.

I learned about this 40 years ago in studying for my psychiatry board examina-tions: Confabulation is a “condition” that arises from mild brain damage in alcoholism plus vitamin deficiency—a condition known as Korsakoff’s Psychosis. But of late I’ve come to realize that everybody confabulates, at least a little bit, though it’s disguised better or worse in some. Scientists do it better, constructing theories that explain more and are more resistant to exceptions. It’s more true, what they say, but it may not be for humans to be able to say what’s absolutely true!

If we’re caught in a more-awake state than dreams, can we dare to presume that we are fully awake? And what would that be like? These are questions of epistemology, that branch of philosophy that asks how we know what we think we know.

It occurred to me that we all confabulate, though far more subtly than Korsakoff’s syndrome. We have major politicians who are sincere, I believe, and flagrantly in contrast with my beliefs. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong, it’s how reality is interpreted. One can speculated on people lying flagrantly, but I don’t think so. At my age I’ve known too many who in their own mind were sincere, hurt, but they confabulated “their own reality.”

Some mild cases of psychopathy may well be people who confabulate a tiny bit more than the rest of us, and their sincerity tends to seduce us into buying into their version of reality. But that was before the idea that everyone confabulates, more or less, and with greater or lesser skill.

Most people go along with others—they call this “believing.” When enough people believe something, it really seems right—at least for true believers. They don’t realize that we’re all confabulating.

What if all truth perceived by humans is confabulation? The uptick in progress, “science,” is just an uptick in the search for evidence and consistency. True truths are unable to be conceived of by human minds—the idea of there being one truth and all else falsehood being a quirk of history. Of course such an idea is an offense to humanity and its assumption—presumption?—that it deserves the ultimate truth because—well, because we can conceive of it! But what if it turns out that there is no truth that can finally be known, discovered, understood, at least by human minds?

So I dare go in the other direction: In many of my cartoons,  I confabulate willingly, flagrantly, inviting my unconscious to fill in the gaps.  It occurs to me, for example, that the unconscious is perhaps only partly primitive or “lower,” and partly higher, more clever and in touch with deeper truths—but not able to articulate them in human language!

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