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Tall Stories

Reprint of the text from my article in Prospect magazine, 4th July 2009, Issue 160

If someone tells you something that isn’t true, they may not be lying. At least not in the conventional sense. Confabulation, a rare disorder resulting from severe brain damage, causes its sufferers to relentlessly invent and believe fictions—both mundane and fantastical—about their lives. If asked where she has just been, a patient might say that she was in the laundry room (when she wasn’t) or that she’s been visiting Scotland with her sister (who’s been dead for 20 years), or even that she isn’t in the room where you’re talking to her, but in one exactly like it, further down the corridor. And could you fetch her hand cream please? These stories aren’t maintained for long periods, but are sincerely believed.

While it only affects a tiny minority of those with brain damage, confabulation tells us something important: that spontaneous, fluid, even riotous creativity is a natural part of the design of the mind. The damage associated with confabulation—usually to the frontal lobes—adds nothing to the brain’s makeup. Instead it releases a capacity for fiction that lies dormant inside all of us. Anyone who has seen children at play knows that the desire to make up stories is deeply embedded in human nature. And it can be cultivated too, most clearly by anarchic improvisers like Paul Merton.

Chris Harvey John taught me “improv” at London’s Spontaneity Shop. He can step on stage in front of 200 people to perform a totally unscripted hour-long show. There’ll be no rehearsal, no discussion of characters or plot. Instead, he and the other actors invent a play from scratch, based entirely on their unplanned reactions to each other. This seemingly effortless, throwaway attitude is the opposite of what we normally assume about the creative process: that it is hard work. Artists are often talked about in reverent, mystical tones. Art does connect with deep and mysterious human forces, but that doesn’t mean it is only available to a select few who, through luck or special training, are allowed to invent things.

Psychological research increasingly shows that inventiveness is fundamental to the normal operation of the mind. Aikaterini Fotopoulou is a research psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, London, who specialises in confabulation. She regards it as a failure of the psychological mechanisms responsible for memory. “These inventions are really memory constructions,” she says. “When people confabulate they are failing to check the origin of the material that they build into their memories. You or I can usually tell the difference between a memory of something we’ve done and a memory of something we’ve just heard about, and distinguish both from stray thoughts or hopes. Confabulators can’t do this. Material that, for emotional or other reasons, comes to mind can at times be indiscriminately assumed to be a memory of what really happened.”

There’s a clue to confabulation in the responses of other patients with damage to the frontal lobes. These patients, who may have suffered violent head injuries or damage from illnesses such as strokes or Alzheimers, don’t necessarily confabulate but will often have problems with planning and motivation. They can seem heavily dependent on their external environment. Some, for example, indiscriminately respond to the things they see, regardless of whether it is appropriate in the context. The French psychiatrist L’hermitte demonstrated this “environmental dependency” in the 1980s when he laid a syringe on a table in front of a patient with frontal lobe damage and then turned around and took down his trousers. Without hesitation the patient injected him in the buttocks. This was a completely inappropriate action for the patient, but in terms of the possible actions made available by the scene in front of her, it was the obvious thing to do.

In those patients with frontal damage who do confabulate, however, the brain injury makes them rely on their internal memories—their thoughts and wishes—rather than true memories. This is of course dysfunctional, but it is also creative in some of the ways that make improvisation so funny: producing an odd mix of the mundane and impossible. When a patient who claims to be 20 years old is asked why she looks about 50, she replies that she was pushed into a ditch by her brothers and landed on her face. Asked about his good mood, another patient called Harry explains that the president visited him at his office yesterday. The president wanted to talk politics, but Harry preferred to talk golf. They had a good chat.

Improvisers tap into these same creative powers, but in a controlled way. They learn to cultivate a “dual mind,” part of which doesn’t plan or discriminate and thus unleashes its inventive powers, while the other part maintains a higher level monitoring of the situation, looking out for opportunities to develop the narrative.

Both improvisation and confabulation show that the mind is inherently sense-making. Just as a confabulator is unfortunately driven to invent possible stories from the fragments of their memories and thoughts, so an improviser looks at the elements of a scene and lets their unconscious mind provide them with possible actions that can make sense of it. On stage, this allows them to create entrancing stories. But this capacity for invention is inside all of us. As audience or performers, we are all constantly inventing.


‘Without a safety net’

the brakes slipped in the wet
somebody messed up
the dam burst
the reinforcements never came
the supports didn’t hold
i forgot to write the address down
you never called

the brakes slipped in the wet
the backups didn’t run
the first aid box was empty
the safety catch slipped on this gun

the worse came true
we weren’t prepared for this
this wasn’t supposed to happen
but it did

the lifeboats weren’t ready
we weren’t warned
the fire-exits were obstructed
the alarm didn’t go off

somebody should have said something
and somebody should have checked
but it wasn’t me

this wasn’t supposed to happen
it did


Me in a dream

And I dreamt that, for totally mundane reasons, I needed to change my clothes and as I took off the black t-shirt I was wearing I noticed a flash of red folded-up in the black of the t-shirt cloth. And in the dream I remember thinking to myself “What’s that? Oh, of course, it must be the red snood I wear” (A snood is a kind of scarf, and I do indeed often wear one, which is red). So, still in the dream, I started to peel apart the red and black cloth, as you do with clothes you have taken off all in one go. And the red cloth, it turned out, was not my snood, but instead a red t-shirt which I was wearing underneath my black t-shirt and which, I could see – or maybe ‘know’ in the way that you just know some things in dreams – was some kind of socialist / trade union t-shirt from the mid 1980s.

So far, so boring. This seems even more ordinary and unremarkable than most people’s dreams which have extraordinary and remarkable content, yet still manage to bore in the daylight telling. But listen to this – this ordinary story of a boring dream has a message about the nature of the mind, because, you see, I don’t own any red t-shirts that I wear underneath a black t-shirt. .

There’s a theory that dreams result from random activations in our brain, which trigger ideas and images and which some story-telling aspect of our minds then tries to weave meaning around. Dreams reveal the mind trying to make sense of noise, this theory goes.

Now, notice what happened in my boring dream. I – the voice I experience as “I” – was trying to make sense and I came up with a story about the flash of red, that it was my snood. In fact, this is the most plausible story, certainly more plausible than the red t-shirt story. If my mind was a unity then the red snood story adopted by my internal voice would have been the same story adopted by the part of my mind generating the dream experience. But it wasn’t. The dream world delivered me a different story, that of the red t-shirt, and told that story to me, not in terms of a internal voice, but in terms of a direct experience.

Conclusions? That my mind has at least two substantive parts, both of which are capable of reasoning about the world, of making sense of it and telling stories, but which speak a different language and make different inferences from the same data.


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