Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Improvisation & Confabulation—an Art Form?

Originally posted on May 18, 2008

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are improvising, making it up as we go along. We pretend that we are following rules, sticking to what’s expected, playing out the lessons we learn, and to some degree we are. However, in greater and lesser ways we are adding our own creative twists, nuances, stylistic elaborations, exaggerations, accentuations, of whatever we are doing. We distort these actions to justify our own value, to support our many different underlying attitudes and belief systems, to resonate and reinforce our individual and peculiar ways of being in the world. We cannot help but doing this because we are unique mixtures of personal background, temperament, interests, and resonant imagery, with each of these categories representing many sub-components. The aggregate, the product, makes us really as unique as our fingerprints, and as a result, our behavior, the mixture of our perceptions, intuitions, interpretations, and responses, reflect this individuality.

It helps, though, if we learn to make improvisation a more conscious process, because then we can choose with more awareness to select among the various possible inputs those elements that fit with our intentions and higher values.

I made up a mantra or motto: “Miuayuga,” pronounced “Mee-You-Ayugah!” It’s an acronym (a word made up of the initial letters of a phrase, name of an organization, etc.) for “making it up as you go along.” I even made up some esoteric associations to this mantra: Me (meaning “me”)-You (meaning “you”)-Ayuga (meaning a cycle of cosmic time in the ancient Hindu theology, a “yuga”). This word symbolizes an awareness of the spiritual path of improvisation. There’s a recognition that improvisation is an inevitable and pervasive part of life, and that there’s wisdom in the art of improvisation when it’s done consciously. It’s a recognition also of the value of spontaneity as a key dynamic within the greater creativity of the Cosmos.


Here’s another word I recently made up to address one aspect of the art of making it up as you go along. One can improvise in music (e.g., jazz), in dance, in drama, but confabulation is more of a verbal, cognitive skill. It makes up theories, explanations. It should be recognized as one of the improvisational arts. Some folks are more talented than others at it.

Technically, confabulation is the activity of making stuff up—generally associated with it being done reactively and unconsciously. That is, the person confabulating doesn’t know that what comes into consciousness is not a true perception, memory, widely accepted idea. I first encountered the term in textbooks on neurology, describing one of the signs of certain kinds of brain damage (e.g., Korsakoff’s Syndrome, arising from vitamin deficiency associated with chronic alcoholism). I’ve realized that most folks confabulate a bit more than they realize, and we all do it at least a little. It is better, though, if you know when and how you’re doing it. Interpersonally, when done for flirtation it’s called “blarney,” for fun and impressiveness, “tall stories,” and manipulation, “bulls**t.”  I aim at doing it for fun.

Sue Grafton’s fictional detective heroine Kinsey Milhone lies to maneuver her way through a case. Generally, this is considered less than a virtue, but here’s a series in which the forces of good fudge a bit to win over the forces of evil, so…. Myself, I tend to confabulate consciously especially in the arena of theory speculation.

So, playing with the word, I am a self-proclaimed confabulationist, a professional confabulator, indeed, a Professor and Master at Confabulology. (Actually, having made up the game, I can confer a higher status-pseudo-degree on myself than I might actually deserve, should this field ever become established with consensual standards. In fact, I might only be mediocre at the game. But at this point, it’s my game so I can make up the rules.)

Confabulations sometimes represent the beginning of a hypothesis that I then discover to be a bit more true or useful than I had anticipated, at which point they advance gradually in the accumulation of evidence and examples towards the status of “theory.” Sometimes, I begin with a confabulation that reflects or gives words to what is really still at the level of playful hunch. Many of these don’t really pan out and they revert to the category of silly playful ideas. Others do evolve into more interesting ideas and theories.

For example, I just made up a new theory about why dancing can be energizing rather than fatiguing, and posted it on this blog. Check it out.

One Response to “Improvisation & Confabulation—an Art Form?”

  • […] I dunno, but it feels nice, a pleasant meditation that reminded me to experience my posture, movements, to kinesthetically savor, the inner-body equivalent of “pause and smell the roses” but without actually pausing, except mentally. It helps explain why each dance feels like an old friend that I get to meet again, play with again, be with again, and be in some sense “bigger” or “more alive” in a special way just because I could be with this friend-dance-group again. See webpage on folk dancing as soul celebration. (Also on this blog I’ve posted today another essay-ette on improvisation and confabulation.) […]

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