Confabulation: Honest Lying


We are all wrong. Philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, even mathematicians make huge, sometime devastating errors. We make errors in our daily life — errors of judgement, of planning, of memory, among others. Much of the time, we are not aware of our errors, we feel that we are right and we keep maintaining our position regardless of any evidence in contrast with it. In some cases, however, our mistakes in judging and remembering are so evident that we need other names to distinguish them from ‘‘normal’’ errors. Delusion and confabulation are the names we use to indicate ‘‘abnormal’’ errors in judgement and remembering.

So starts a recent paper (Dalla Barba and Boisse 2010) on a study on confabulation.

The term “confabulation” has been used to denote a wide range of errors in memory as well as distortions in other cognitive domains. Despite confabulation having been studied for well over a century, there is very little on which researchers agree, even when it comes to the most basic question of how confabulating should be defined, or how many types of confabulation there are.

At its simplest, people who confabulate provide information, or act based on information, that is obviously false. These people are genuinely unaware that the information is wrong.

A number of disorders can cause confabulations, including Korsakoff’s syndrome, ruptured aneurisms of the anterior or posterior communicating artery, subarachnoid hemorrhage, encephalitis, traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, Binswanger’s encephalopathy, multiple sclerosis, and psychotic disorders. Confabulation is often seen in dementia patients, although it has not been extensively studied in this particular group; and to my knowledge, the studies that have been done have focused exclusively on early-stage dementia.

Studies on all disorders are typically lumped together when trying to develop clues on what causes confabulation and how it is expressed. However, there may be distinct differences in the ways and frequencies with which patients with different disorders, with damage to different parts of the brain, or with different types of damage to the same part(s) of the brain, confabulate. And it is quite possible that the results from studies done on early-stage dementia may result in a skewed concept of when and why and how moderately- and severely-demented patients confabulate.

1.1. Different types of confabulations

The most recent papers I found generally agree on the core characteristics of all forms of confabulation, i.e.:

(i) Confabulation is an account based in memory that is false with respect to the context (e.g., time, place, etc) in which the event is placed, and may contain false or grossly inaccurate details within its own context.

(ii) Patients typically exhibit anosognosia for their memory problems and are unaware of the fact that they are confabulating. Thus, confabulations are not intentionally produced and are probably not the result of compensatory mechanisms. However, the content of a confabulation may be emotionally biased, e.g., may reflect unintentional motivations and drives.

(iii) Patients may act upon their confabulation, reflecting their genuine belief in the false memory.

(iv) Confabulations are most frequent in the autobiographical domain (e.g., personal past experiences or plans for the future), and autobiographical confabulations are usually associated with the strongest confidence in their veracity.

Various attempts have been made to distinguish among the different kinds of confabulation. One common distinction is between “semantic” and “episodic” confabulations. Semantic memory refers to a person’s store of conceptual and factual knowledge that is not related to any specific memory, such as the color of broccoli or what a fork is used for.  Episodic memory involves the ability to learn, store, and retrieve information about unique personal experiences that occur in daily life, such as the details of a recent office meeting or a special holiday gathering that took place several years earlier. Episodic memories typically include information about the time and place of an event, as well as detailed information about the event itself. These memories may be drawn upon to envision future events. Planning and anticipation are similar to recalling personal memories and use similar areas of the brain. Semantic confabulations, then, are false statements associated with knowledge of generally known facts. Episodic confabulations are false statements associated with memories of personal past episodes or experiences, or personal plans for the future.

Another very common distinction is between “provoked” and “spontaneous” confabulations. Provoked confabulations are typically described as plausible minor memory distortions in response to direct questioning — reflecting the need to fill a memory gap when questioned or in a test situation — whereas spontaneous confabulations are unprovoked, often implausible, memories. Provoked confabulation resembles errors produced by healthy persons on tests of memory following prolonged retention intervals, and may reflect a normal strategy to compensate for memory deficits. Spontaneous confabulation, on the other hand, is thought to be due to impaired source memory (i.e., a deficit in remembering contextual information about an event) and temporal confusion (i.e., the difficulty in distinguishing irrelevant and old memory traces from relevant and new traces referring to the ongoing reality).

However, it can be difficult to draw the line between provoked and spontaneous confabulations. Moreover, several researchers have noted cases in which spontaneous confabulations were plausible and provoked confabulations were bizarre and implausible. In fact, a recent study (Dalla Barba and Boisse 2010) concluded that the great majority of confabulations do not clearly fall in either category. Instead, they consisted of “general memories, habits, and misplacements”, i.e., either true episodes misplaced in time and place, or personal habits and routines that the patient “remembers” as specific events. When asked what they did today or what they will do tomorrow, for example, confabulating patients may reply with well-established memories from their pasts, however irrelevant these memories may be to their present situations.

Accordingly, Dalla Barba and Boisse also suggested distinguishing between semantically anomalous and semantically appropriate confabulations. A confabulation that is semantically anomalous is one that is inconsistent with knowledge and information shared by the members of society. However, it may be made of autobiographical elements put together in an inappropriate semantic structure. An example of this is a statement made by a patient suffering from traumatic brain injury. He said that he had won a running race the previous day and was awarded with a piece of meat that was placed on his right knee. It is unlikely that anyone would have such an experience (semantically anomalous). However, elements of the statement were autobiographical: the patient had spent much of his free time running races earlier in his life, and he fell during a race, incurring severe head trauma and an open wound on his right knee. A semantically appropriate confabulation, on the other hand, might sound perfectly plausible to someone who does not know the patient. An example might be asking a dementia patient how she celebrated Christmas last year, and the patient responding with a description of family traditions even though the previous Christmas was spent doing something entirely new and different. Unless the questioner actually knew what the patient had done that year, her answer would have sounded factual. An example of a semantically appropriate personal plan for the future might be asking a dementia patient what he intends to do tomorrow, and the dementia patient responding that he intends to give a piano lesson. This would sound perfectly reasonable to anyone who did not know that the patient had stopped playing the piano or giving piano lessons two years earlier.

1.2. Confabulation versus delusions

Patients with confabulation will sometimes cling to their false memories even when confronted with the truth or despite being aware of contradictory evidence. Accordingly, confabulation needs to be distinguished from other types of false ideas, most notably delusions.

There are at least superficial similarities between confabulation and delusions; e.g., both involve the production of unintentional false statements, both are resistant to contradictory evidence, and both have been shown to be influenced by emotion and motivation. Some researchers hold that confabulation is a form of delusion, when delusions are more broadly defined.

Others contend that a distinction can be made based on the context in which the two disorders occur (neurological vs. psychiatric) and the fact that confabulation is a memory-related phenomenon whereas delusion is a belief formation disorder. Several clinical characteristics distinguish the two, most notably that delusions tend to be more systematic and pervasive, whereas confabulations are more isolated, polythematic, and fleeting in nature. Recent papers have suggested that, if delusions have a memory component at all, it appears to be related to biased input, encoding, and integration of novel information.

Alzheimer’s patients can exhibit delusions as well as confabulations. The delusions that are frequently observed in Alzheimer’s patients include beliefs about theft, the patient’s house not being his home, Capgras syndrome (someone close to the patient, such as a spouse, is an impostor), belief an intruder is in the house, abandonment, spousal infidelity, and paranoia.

An Alzheimer’s patient who spontaneously confabulates forms a “memory” for an event that did not occur, but is merely consistent with current information. For example, the patient may not remember that she has rearranged the furniture in the living room. Upon seeing the furniture in locations that do not match her memory, she may create a new “memory” that involves someone breaking into the house and moving the items. This confabulation fades with time. A patient with delusions of theft, on the other hand, may become convinced that a particular individual has repeatedly robbed him, even in the absence of readily understood triggers such as a lost billfold.


To discuss what causes confabulation, one must first understand memory — at least, to the extent that memory is currently “understood” — and the ways in which Alzheimer’s affects memory.

2.1. Memory in Alzheimer’s

There are thought to be a number of different memory systems, including episodic memory, semantic memory, autonomic simple classical conditioning, motoric simple classical conditioning, procedural memory, perceptual priming, conceptual priming, and working memory. Each of these depends on different parts of the brain. Some of these memory systems are severely impaired in Alzheimer’s patients, while others, such as procedural memory (cognitive and behavioral skills that operate at an automatic and unconscious level, such as learning to ride a bicycle or to play the piano) are relatively preserved — at least, in the earlier stages.

Here, the focus will be on episodic and semantic memory, since they are thought to be the most relevant to confabulating.

The medial temporal lobes (including the hippocampus, parahippocampus, presubiculum, subiculum, and amydala) constitute the core of the episodic memory system. The medial temporal lobes interact extensively with other brain regions (e.g., the anterior thalamus nucleus, mammillary bodies, fornix, and prefrontal cortex), some of which are associated with “Papez’s circuit”. A lesion in any one of these structures may cause the pattern of impairment that is characteristic of episodic memory dysfunction, i.e., the greatest disruption is in the ability to learn new information, moderate disruption is seen in the ability to recall recently learned information, and the ability to recall remotely learned information is generally intact.

How the medial temporal lobes store memories is not yet understood, but is thought to involve collecting and combining information from multiple cortical streams, such as the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and thoughts during a given episode (e.g., eating a special holiday meal.) This information is transferred first to the parahippocampal region, then to the hippocampus proper, and then to the entorhinal cortex. It is processed in the dentate gyrus, and then transferred to the CA3 region of the hippocampus, where the critically important hippocampal index is assigned, allowing the memory to be stored in a unique way so that it can later be recalled.

Typically, memories are retrieved when a cue from the environment matches a part of the stored memory. For example, years later, the individual bites into a little cake that tastes remarkably like the one he had previously eaten at that special holiday meal. This sensory cue is transferred from the cortex to the parahippocampal region, the hippocampus, and then the entorhinal cortex. From there, it goes directly to the CA3 region where the original hippocampal index is found. The cue activates the hippocampal index associated with the index of the original stored memory — not the memory itself — in the CA3 region. This activation leads to the reinstatement of much of the neural pattern of activity associated with the original event in the CA1 region of the hippocampus, the subiculum and various cortical regions — leading to the experience of ‘remembering’ all of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and thoughts of the original holiday meal.

The hippocampus remains critical for memory retrieval until a process known as consolidation occurs. This process is still not understood, but it is thought that once a memory is consolidated, the distributed pattern of cortical neural activity is directly linked together, such that when a cue is encountered, the memory may be retrieved directly from cortical-cortical connections, without the need for the hippocampus.

In addition to the medial temporal lobes and Papez’s circuit, the frontal lobes are also important for episodic memory. Whereas the medial temporal lobes are critical for the retention of information, the frontal lobes play key roles in the acquisition and encoding of information; retrieval of information without contextual and other cues; recollection of the source of information; and assessment of the temporal sequence and recency of events. One important reason why the frontal lobes are important for encoding episodic memory is that they enable the individual to focus his attention on the information to be remembered and to engage the medial temporal lobes. Dysfunction of the frontal lobes may cause a variety of memory problems, including distortions of episodic memory and false memories, such as when information becomes associated with the wrong context or incorrect specific details.

A simple analogy has been used to help conceptualize the differences between deficits in episodic memory that occur because of damage to the medial temporal lobes (and the Papez circuit) and those that occur because of damage to the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are analogous to the “file clerk” of the episodic memory system, the medial temporal lobes to the “recent memory file cabinet,” and other cortical regions to the “remote memory file cabinet”. Thus, if the frontal lobes are impaired, it is difficult — but not impossible — to get information in and out of storage. However, the information may be distorted due to “improper filing” that leads to an inaccurate source, context, or sequence. Getting information into storage may require stronger encoding, and getting information out of storage may require stronger cues from the environment.

If, on the other hand, the medial temporal lobes are impaired, it may be impossible for recent information to be stored. This will often lead to the impaired person asking for the same information again and again and again. Older information that has been consolidated over months to years is likely stored in other cortical regions — the “remote memory file cabinet” — and will therefore be available for retrieval even when the medial temporal lobes or Papez’s circuit are damaged.

Of the six major memory systems, episodic memory is the most clinically relevant for Alzheimer’s patients. Very early in the course of the disease, there is prominent medial temporal lobe pathology and pathologic involvement of the lateral temporoparietal and medial parietal cortex, as well as a lesser (and more variable) degree of pathology in lateral and medial prefrontal cortex. These cause disruptions to the episodic memory system that are among the earliest signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Initially, they result in minor memory lapses such as misplaced keys, missed appointments and late bills that are brushed off as forgetfulness due to fatigue, distraction or “senior moments”. More critical lapses, such as failing to remember whether the stove has been turned off or medications have been taken, often precipitate the initial visit to a doctor to diagnose the problem. Episodic memory deficits continue to represent one of the most significant functional problems as a patient progresses through the mild and moderate stages of Alzheimer’s.

As mentioned above, damage to structures associated with episodic memory results in a characteristic pattern in which recent memories are more vulnerable to decay than remote memories. Accordingly, as episodic memory abilities continue to decline, events from the distant past are better remembered than events that occurred after or shortly before the onset of the disease. Vivid remote memories may sometimes be confused with psychotic delusions or hallucinations, such as claims to have recently seen and interacted with a long-dead friend or family member. Inevitably, the inability to remember recent events or learn new information leads to functional deficits that are devastating.

One common assumption is that episodic memory is primarily or entirely concerned with the past. However, a growing number of investigators have begun to approach episodic memory in a broader context, one that emphasizes both the ability of individuals to re-experience episodes from the past and also imagine or pre-experience episodes that may occur in the future — e.g., planning and anticipation. Evidence for this close linkage of past and future events comes from studies of patients with episodic memory deficits. For example, studies on amnesia patients have found that they not only cannot consciously remember their pasts, but also cannot imagine their personal futures.

Neuroimaging has provided supportive evidence that the same regions of the brain are involved. For example, a recent neuroimaging study was designed to examine the neural regions involved in the construction (i.e., the search and reconstruction of a past event or the creation of a future event) and subsequent elaboration (i.e., retrieving or imagining supplementary details) of past and future events. The results showed that the left hippocampus and posterior visuospatial regions were involved in both past and future event construction. Elaboration was characterized by a remarkable overlap of activity in regions comprising the autobiographical memory retrieval network, including self-referential processing, contextual and episodic imagery. This striking neural overlap is consistent with findings that amnesic patients exhibit deficits in both past and future thinking, and confirms that the episodic system contributes importantly to imagining the future.

However, remembering the past and imagining the future differ, at least with respect to temporal orientation, and some unique cognitive processes and neural regions should therefore be associated with each. And indeed, this same study found that, during the construction phase, future events recruited regions involved in prospective thinking and generation processes, i.e., right frontopolar cortex and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, respectively; and also uniquely engaged the right hippocampus, possibly as a response to the novelty of these events. Unexpectedly, there was no evidence of any regions of the brain engaged uniquely by past events. Every region engaged by the construction and elaboration of past events was also engaged by future events either to a similar or significantly higher level.

Accordingly, it has been suggested that these results raise questions about the adaptive significance of the episodic system. Although the function of the episodic system is typically conceived of as retrieval of past events, it is possible that the primary role of this system is not reminiscence, but rather, future thinking. As such, the ability to retrieve episodic information would exist primarily for the purpose of simulating possible future scenarios and outcomes, and anticipating future needs. And, although I have not seen this suggested in any of the papers I’ve read so far, it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many of our loved ones seem so unafraid of the future … and also why they often see no need to consult doctors, take medicines, or take other steps to try to slow down the progression of their dementia.

From this viewpoint, damage to the episodic “memory” system is even more clinically relevant for Alzheimer’s patients.

Semantic memory involves memory for factual knowledge that has been learned, but for which specific “time and place” information about the source of the original experience is typically not known. Encyclopedic knowledge of information such as the features of objects (e.g., apples are usually red), categories (e.g., oranges and bananas are both types of fruit), historical events, mathematical tables, and similar types of information are considered to be stored in semantic memory systems of the brain. Semantic memories may also include “autobiographical” information, i.e., personal facts, such as one’s place and date of birth, or the names of family members. Evidence that the semantic memory system is different from episodic memory comes from neuroimaging studies, and the fact that previously acquired semantic memory is spared in patients who have severe impairment of the episodic memory system, such as with disruption of the Papez circuit (e.g., in Korsakoff’s syndrome) or surgical removal of the medial temporal lobes.

The anterior and inferolateral temporal lobes are important in the naming and categorization tasks by which semantic memory is usually assessed. However, in the broadest sense, semantic memory includes all of the person’s knowledge of the world not related to any specific episodic memory. It could therefore be argued that semantic memory resides in multiple cortical areas throughout the brain. For example, there is evidence that visual images are stored in nearby visual association areas.

Alzheimer’s is the most common clinical disorder that disrupts semantic memory. This disruption may be due to pathology in the anterior and inferolateral temporal lobes, and/or to pathology in the frontal cortex leading to poor activation and retrieval of semantic information.

In Alzheimer’s disease, episodic and semantic memory decline independently of each other, supporting the idea that two separate memory systems are impaired in this disorder.

Interestingly, the content of autobiographical memories shifts from episodic to semantic with aging in healthy adults. Alzheimer’s disease enhances this pattern. Very recent neuroimaging studies showed that, as hippocampal volume decreased in Alzheimer’s patients, the left inferior frontal gyrus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) were activated. The linking function of the hippocampus is related to vivid, episodic retrieval and the linking function of the vmPFC is related to semantic retrieval. The researchers speculated that the linking function of the degraded hippocampus is taken over by the vmPFC, resulting in the shift to semantisation.

Not all dementias are alike in the memory systems that are affected. For example, patients with semantic dementia (the temporal variant of frontotemporal dementia) exhibit deficits in all functions of semantic memory, such as naming, single-word comprehension, and impaired general knowledge (such as the color of common items) early in the course of the disease. Other aspects of cognition, however, are relatively preserved, including components of speech, perceptual and nonverbal problem-solving skills, and episodic memory.

2.2. Brain damage associated with confabulation in dementia patients

There is a general consensus of opinion that confabulation is the result of damage to the brain … but questions still remain as to what types of damage, and where, are needed for confabulation to occur. I get the distinct impression that one possible reason for the controversy is that the data on all types of brain damage, producing all types of confabulation, tend to be lumped together, which may confuse more than clarify. In particular, I wonder how much confabulation in Alzheimer’s patients has in common with confabulation in patients who have sharply-localized damage to a single site in the brain. Alzheimer’s is a multidomain disorder, including not only memory loss, but also executive dysfunction (e.g., impaired ability to plan ahead, prioritize, stop and start activities, shift from one activity to another activity, and to monitor one’s own behavior) and varying degrees of visuospatial and language deficits.

Accordingly, I have done my best to focus on studies specifically done on Alzheimer’s and related dementias — although it is often difficult to determine whether researchers derived some of their conclusions about Alzheimer’s patients from studies on non-demented persons. Moreover, please note that a 2006 paper commented, “Previous studies that have investigated confabulation in AD have failed to take into account the characteristics of the disease…”

Studies that couple brain imaging techniques (e.g., MRI, PET, and SPECT) with tests on cognitive function (e.g., the MMSE and CASI*) have found that, in early-stage Alzheimer’s patients tested about autobiographical memory (personal semantic and episodic information):

- Alzheimer’s patients produce more confabulations in response to episodic than to personal semantic memory questions, probably reflecting the much more marked impairment of episodic memory characteristic of early-stage Alzheimer’s.

- There is a correlation between the degree of cognitive impairment (defined by MMSE and CASI scores) and personal semantic confabulation, but not between cognitive impairment and episodic confabulation, or between cognitive impairment and temporality. (Remember, this is in early-stage Alzheimer’s. Remote memory, including personal semantic memory, is relatively preserved in early-stage Alzheimer’s.)

- Semantic confabulation (and MMSE and CASI scores) correlates with atrophy in the anterior cingulate, bilateral medial temporal, and right middle temporal gyrus.

- Confabulation scores for remembering the past and planning the future (i.e., confabulations involving the episodic memory system) are strongly correlated, and are higher in patients who also exhibit delusion and/or aggression.

- Lower blood flow (“hypoperfusion”) in the frontal and/or temporal regions of the brain, including Brodmann’s area 9 which plays a role in episodic memory retrieval, is associated with delusion in Alzheimer’s patients. Lower metabolism (“hypometabolism”) has also been reported in frontal or temporal regions of the brain in delusional Alzheimer’s patients.

- Delusional Alzheimer’s patients exhibit more episodic confabulations and have lower blood flow in the prefrontal cortex than nondelusional Alzheimer’s patients.

From these studies, the following conclusions were drawn:

- Different mechanisms are involved in personal semantic and episodic confabulations in Alzheimer’s patients.

- Episodic confabulation is affected by delusions related to prefrontal hypoperfusion.

- Semantic confabulation (at least, personal semantic confabulation) is associated with cognitive impairment.

[*The Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument (CASI) includes subscales related to frontal lobe function -- i.e., attention and list-generating fluency -- as well as subscales related to concentration and mental manipulation, orientation, short-term memory, long-term memory, language, visual construction, and abstraction and judgment.]

Progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s inevitably go on to develop damage in more and more regions of the brain; and so the characteristics of confabulation seen in early-stage dementia may be considerably different from those seen in later-stage patients. However, confabulation in later stage patients has rarely, if ever, been studied.

2.3. Possible mechanisms associated with confabulation

Researchers have come up with a number of hypotheses to explain why confabulators “remember” a past that is different from the “real” past. One of the earliest hypotheses was that confabulations occurred as a compensatory mechanism for memory loss (i.e., the patient produces confabulations to fill in memory gaps and avoid embarrassment). However, this hypothesis has been vigorously challenged and is no longer in favor. Current hypotheses fall into two main classes, i.e., temporality/source confusion, and strategic retrieval. (These hypotheses have been developed to cover all types of confabulations associated with all types of brain damage, even though it is becoming apparent that different types of confabulations are associated with different mechanisms. The majority of the studies have focused on provoked confabulations, for the very simple reason that they are much easier to study. Personal experience leads me to believe that spontaneous confabulating may play a much more important role in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, which apparently has never been studied.)

Temporality/source confusion hypotheses posit that confabulations are true memories displaced in time, caused by impaired search processes of the long-term memory storage system. Cues that are necessary for the retrieval of memories might match and activate stored experiences other than the episode that is sought. In the “temporality and consciousness” model, the three dimensions of temporality — past, present, and future — map onto three types of confabulation that are expressed in the context of past episodic memory, current time-place disorientation, and future plans, respectively. The model distinguishes a “knowing” consciousness (expressed in the form of habits and semantics) and a “temporal” consciousness (related to unique personal events, specified in time.) Studies have shown that dementia patients tend to retrieve habitual, generic, well-learned information and to mistake it for specific events. The model proposes that this tendency reflects a disruption in temporal consciousness, leading the patient to rely on “knowing” consciousness instead.

Strategic retrieval hypotheses suggest a general retrieval failure of which temporal confusion is a common symptom. They note that since confabulation can concern experiences encoded and stored before the onset of brain damage, it seems to be associated more with memory retrieval rather than memory encoding or storage difficulties. According to these models, when memories are not elicited directly or automatically by a cue, the target memory needs to be recovered through strategic search processes akin to problem solving. Strategic retrieval processes operate at input to frame the memory problem and initiate a search, to constrain the search, and to guide it toward local, proximal cues that can activate associative memory processes. Then, once a memory is recovered, strategic processes operate at output to monitor whether the recovered memory is consistent with the goals of the memory task and whether it is consistent with other knowledge, thereby verifying whether the recovered memory is likely true or false. Memory-related confabulation represents a failure of one or more of these strategic processes.

Proponents of strategic retrieval have suggested a pair of mental systems that can help explain the process of the acceptance or rejection of an experience or a memory as true. The first is an intuitive “feeling of rightness” (FOR) that allows healthy individuals to reject memories that simply do not make sense. FOR is impenetrable to rational influences, suggesting it is formed outside of conscious awareness and may be affectively (emotionally) laden. FOR is thought to be defective in people who confabulate. It precedes the second system, which is a more advanced system that cross references FOR-validated material with the body of previously accumulated knowledge. Because confabulators do not have good memory retrieval, this second system will not filter out incorrect statements. All the confabulators are left with is the feeling of rightness response. FOR is hypothesized to be one function of the ventromedial PFC (vmPFC). Recall that neuroimaging studies showed that, as hippocampal volume decreased in Alzheimer’s patients, the vmPFC was increasingly activated, resulting in a shift to semantisation.

Although some models favor a disruption of frontal/executive functions involved in the control of retrieval from long-term memory, this involvement is controversial. Several studies on Alzheimer’s patients did not find any correlation between confabulation and performance on executive tasks, the ability to discriminate the origin of information, and/or working memory. Temporality models were developed, in part, in response to such findings. Similarly, studies comparing Alzheimer’s and FTD patients failed to provide any evidence of a correlation between the performance on frontal/executive tasks and the tendency to confabulate. Patients with FTD were found to confabulate more on both episodic memory and personal future planning tasks than patients with Alzheimer’s. It was suggested that “frontal executive” tasks are not able to discriminate between patients with primary frontal pathology (FTD patients) and patients with secondary frontal dysfunction (Alzheimer’s patients); and that the reason FTD patients are more prone to confabulate may be due to a more severe disruption of personal temporality in FTD.

Another area of controversy surrounds whether and/or how emotional mechanisms influence the presence or the content of confabulations. Initial evidence that confabulations may reflect unintentional motivations and drives that are positively biased led some researchers to coin the terms “motivated” or “self-enhancing” confabulation. This was not seen as an exaggeration of psychological motivation per se. Instead, it was conceptualized as the direct outcome of reduced executive control over memory. When irrelevant memory representations are not inhibited and memories are not retrieved in an appropriate manner, motivational factors may acquire a greater role in determining which memories are selected for retrieval and accepted as true. One study concluded that confabulations about current circumstances showed the positive bias, whereas confabulations about the past did not. More recent studies have found that, while an emotional bias may exist, it is not necessarily a positive one. Patients with various memory disorders had an enhanced tendency to produce confabulations with affective content (pleasant and unpleasant), and the affective content appeared to relate, at least in part, to the patient’s current mood-state.

The proposal that emotions might play a key role in the affective content of confabulations has received very little attention, even though it is consistent with what is now known about the anatomical basis of confabulating, notably its association with damage to key emotion-related structures in the medial frontal and anterior limbic areas. Memories with affective content (pleasant or unpleasant) are better remembered than neutral events. Emotional enhancement of episodic memory has been linked to the amygdala, a group of nuclei located in the medial temporal lobe. One hypothesis is that emotional arousal activates the amygdala and that such activation results in the modulation of memory storage or consolidation occurring in other brain regions, regulating the strength of memories in relation to their emotional significance. The amygdala is important in the creation of biases and in decision making. There is extensive evidence that the amygdala is crucially involved in regulating stress effects on memory. Stress hormones and stress-activated neurotransmitters enhance the consolidation of memory for emotionally arousing experiences through actions involving the amygdala. Such amygdala activation strengthens the storage of different kinds of information through the amygdala’s widespread network of efferent projections to other brain regions.

It is unlikely that regions of the brain that remain structurally intact are functionally insulated from the effects of damage elsewhere in the brain. In neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, disruption of the functional integrity within individual regions, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as connections between these regions, influences the functional milieu of the remaining network. One consequence of this breakdown is a decline in performance, such as the changes seen on tests of short-term episodic memory. At the same time, there is the possibility of compensatory changes that allow performance to remain above what would be expected given the extent of structural damage to the hippocampus and related regions. For example, the amygdala is not normally recruited in healthy older adults to any greater extent during memory tasks. A recent PET study of Alzheimer’s patients engaged in a delayed match-to-sample face recognition task, however, revealed that increased activity within the amygdala was found to be associated with better task performance during longer memory delays. Memory networks may be redirected towards the more primitive circuitry involving the amygdala and its connectivity with related brain structures as a buffer for episodic memory decline following degeneration of other medial temporal lobe regions, even though the amygdala as well as the hippocampus frequently undergo significant pathological changes in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.


Several papers written by researchers who study confabulation commented that confabulation is “often” seen in dementia patients, but I did not find any papers which specifically studied the prevalence of confabulation in Alzheimer’s. What I did find was a handful of studies which compared the frequency with which various types of confabulations were observed in different dementias.

For example, one study compared Alzheimer’s and FTD patients using questions about temporality (personal past, orientation, and future planning). Patients in both groups had mild dementia, and were equally impaired on tests of executive function. Both groups confabulated across all three categories of confabulation, and produced significantly more confabulations in episodic memory than in semantic memory or personal future. However, FTD patients confabulated significantly more than Alzheimer’s patients on both episodic memory and personal future. The dementia groups produced fewer correct responses on the confabulation battery in comparison with normal controls, confirming that both a memory impairment and a deficit in personal future planning tasks are a part of the clinical picture of both Alzheimer’s and FTD. Interestingly, although FTD patients confabulated more frequently than Alzheimer’s patients on episodic memory and personal future, there was no evidence that there were any qualitative differences (i.e., differences in the content of the confabulations) between the two groups. Both patient groups produced the same type of “semantically appropriate confabulation”.

A case history suggested that at least some patients with behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) may actually be demonstrating “fantastic thinking” (vividly experienced imagination) rather than delusions or spontaneous confabulations, and actually be aware that the false statements are imaginary.

One study compared Alzheimer’s with Lewy body dementia (LBD). The Alzheimer’s and LBD groups of patients were matched for age, illness duration, nature and severity of cognitive deficits, and regional blood flow distribution on SPECT. Confabulatory responses (as well as inattention, visual distractibility, impairments in establishing and shifting mental set, incoherence, perseveration, and intrusions) were significantly more common in LBD than in Alzheimer’s. However, it appears that the LBD group included patients who actually had Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD) rather than LBD per se. When the data from these PDD patients were removed from the comparisons, the pattern of findings remained essentially unchanged, except that the differences in confabulation and memory interference no longer reached significance.

Another reported that confabulation is rare in patients who have MCI. (Note, please, that MCI is not a dementia per se, although about a third of patients with MCI do go on to develop a dementia.) There did not appear to be any differences in the prevalence of confabulating among patients diagnosed with amnestic MCI (deficits in memory), non-amnestic MCI (cognitive impairment is restricted to non-memory domains) and multiple MCI (both memory and non-memory domains of cognition are impaired).

What I found increasingly bizarre, the more I read, is that researchers who study confabulation don’t seem to be aware that dementia patients exhibit spontaneous confabulation. Confabulation is often described as an “infrequent disorder”. Spontaneous confabulation is repeatedly described as “rare”, in comparison with provoked confabulation. And yet, Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States … and surely all of those who die from Alzheimer’s had exhibited spontaneous confabulation for quite some time before they died.

Statements by researchers who study confabulation that seem wildly incongruous to an Alzheimer’s caregiver:

“Most patients with spontaneous confabulation eventually stop confabulating.”

“Confabulators may occasionally act upon their confabulation.” (“Occasionally”? Later-stage Alzheimer’s patients persistently and repeatedly act upon the belief their childhood memories are relevant to their present circumstances.)

“Confabulations are usually limited in time; they relate to the recent past, the present, and the future.”

In sharp contrast, a recent study conducted by dementia experts to identify patterns of symptoms that can be used to diagnose dementias — i.e., a study involving patients who are still in the early stages of dementia –found that spontaneous confabulation was a symptom in roughly a third of patients with Alzheimer’s or mixed dementia, and a quarter of patients with vascular dementia. Earlier studies had found that spontaneous confabulation is significantly more common in FTD than other dementias, although this particular study only observed it in ~15% of FTD patients.


There is very little mention in the scientific literature of attempting to “treat” or minimize confabulations, even for patients with non-degenerative disorders. One recent paper commented, “Few reports of rehabilitation or management of confabulation exist in the literature, possibly because it is so difficult. Asking the patient to use a stricter criterion at retrieval, or to reason through a series of logical steps to see that his confabulation cannot be true, may do little to convince him, especially in the long run.”

Some researchers have had modest success asking the (non-neurodegenerative) patient to keep a “memory book” in which all activities are recorded, with date and time, and used as an aid in temporal and spatial reorientation. This may, in fact, be helpful in minimizing spontaneous confabulations on which early-stage Alzheimer’s patients act, since members of discussion forums have reported relying on similar types of memory devices to help them maintain their independence. Other measures to help the Alzheimer’s loved one remain oriented with respect to time include, e.g., clocks that show the day and date as well as the time, with a face large enough that all information is readily seen; a calendar to keep track of time and to remember important dates, kept it where it will be seen often; a newspaper delivered daily, and develop the habit of comparing its date with the calendar. Note, please, that orientation is not something to be forced on the loved one but, rather, something to be offered, to the extent the loved one can understand and appreciate it.

One study on early-stage Alzheimer’s patients confirmed that poor encoding can play a significant role in provoked confabulations. My take-away lesson is that distractions must be eliminated, to the greatest extent possible, when attempting to communicate with an Alzheimer’s patient. Turn off the TV and radio, make sure the loved one is focused on you, and do not expect (or allow) the loved one to try to do anything else while the two of you are talking. This may help minimize provoked confabulations … in the earlier stages.

While struggling to find hints helpful for the Alzheimer’s caregiver, I was struck by the discussion in one paper (Schnider 2003) that began, “Spontaneous confabulation is a pervasive disorder that represents a great challenge to any rehabilitation team.” The patients under consideration had suffered non-degenerative brain damage of some sort, and the general approach was to hope that the symptom would eventually resolve itself, and to support the patient in the meantime. The authors went on to say, “Early clinicians proposed avoiding memory training — such as repeated questions about orientation — with patients and engaging them in common everyday activities, accepting their false interpretation of reality as much as possible. Our studies support such an approach. Knowing that any cue can activate a memory and provoke a presently inappropriate action, patients should receive information about their hospitalization, but their false ideas about current reality should not constantly be corrected.”

This is, of course, advice that Alzheimer’s caregivers frequently share with each other.

In fact, the more I read this paper — one of the very few that exist on spontaneous confabulation — the more I thought I recognized my husband (stage 6 Alzheimer’s), as well as the loved ones of many caregivers who frequent discussion forums.

And so, I finally decided that, although I don’t recall having read any discussion of spontaneous confabulation in the Alzheimer’s patient … that is exactly what our loved ones do, more and more, as the disease progresses and they live more and more in the past. And while provoked confabulations are a major annoyance in the early stages — when friends, family, and the medical community take everything our loved ones say at face value, no matter how false we know their statements to be — spontaneous confabulations become a far greater concern in the later stages, because spontaneous confabulations are much more likely to be acted upon by the loved one.

Approaches that can be used to cope with spontaneous confabulation, and ease the confusion, frustration, and fear for the loved one, can be found in resources such as:

Jennifer Ghent-Fuller’s paper “Understanding the Dementia Experience

Jolene Brackey’s book, Creating Moments of Joy

Naomi Feil’s “validation therapy

The Savvy Caregiver training program



Layers of memories separated in time
Photographic double exposures

You are you
but also
a long dead sister
or a half-remembered husband
maybe partially a grandkid

Or maybe you are mostly
the long dead sister.

She is at home
or maybe in another place –
Her last home or
one from many years ago

She is a child
or there are children
to be taken care of
One of them may be you

A Kaleidoscope of images
from whole lives
Jumbled together

~ Anonymous Caregiver


- Gilboa A, Verfaellie M. Telling it like it isn’t: the cognitive neuroscience of confabulation. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2010 Nov;16(6):961-6.


- Dickerson BC, Eichenbaum H. The episodic memory system: neurocircuitry and disorders. Neuropsychopharmacology 2010 Jan;35(1):86-104.


- Budson AE. Understanding memory dysfunction. The Neurologist 2009;15: 71-79.


- Lee E, Kinomura S, Meguro K, Akanuma K, Meguro M, Fukuda H. Confabulations on episodic and semantic memory questions are associated with different neurologic backgrounds in Alzheimer disease. Cogn Behav Neurol. 2009 Jun;22(2):81-8.


- Attali E, De Anna F, Dubois B, Dalla Barba G. Confabulation in Alzheimer’s disease: poor encoding and retrieval of over-learned information. Brain. 2009 Jan;132(Pt 1):204-12. Epub 2008 Oct 1.


- Schnider A. Spontaneous confabulation and the adaptation of thought to ongoing reality. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2003 Aug;4(8):662-71. Note: there is little in this paper that is specific to Alzheimer’s patients, but this is one of the very few papers that focused on spontaneous confabulation. What was said rang true to me regarding the later stages of Alzheimer’s.


- Dalla Barba G, Boisse MF. Temporal consciousness and confabulation: is the medial temporal lobe “temporal”? Cogn Neuropsychiatry. 2010 Jan;15(1):95-117.


- Addis DR, Wong AT, Schacter DL. Remembering the past and imagining the future: common and distinct neural substrates during event construction and elaboration. Neuropsychologia. 2007 April 8; 45(7): 1363-1377. This paper proposes a very interesting, and possibly highly relevant, hypothesis about the adaptive significance of the episodic memory system.


- Rosenbaum RS, Furey ML, Horwitz B, Grady CL. Altered connectivity among emotion-related brain regions during short-term memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Aging. 2010 May;31(5):780-6. Epub 2008 Jul 17.


- Roozendaal B, McEwen BS, Chattarji S. Stress, memory and the amygdala. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 Jun;10(6):423-33. Note: this paper does not discuss confabulation or dementia per se; but much of what is said about affective disorders appears relevant to Alzheimer’s from a caregiver’s perspective.


- Meulenbroek O, Rijpkema M, Kessels RP, Rikkert MG, Fernández G. Autobiographical memory retrieval in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroimage. 2010 Oct 15;53(1):331-40.


- Reuter-Lorenz PA, Lustig C. Brain aging: reorganizing discoveries about the aging mind. Curr Opin Neurobiol 2005; 15:245-51.



1 ping

  1. Julia R Johnson says:

    Good Afternoon, I appreciate the article on Confabulation. However, I do have a question on “confabulation”. Is it always related to Dementia? What if someone has had multiple hits to the head from car accidents, etc. Or even had a brief memory loss after an accident. Where does one get help for this type of issue? or the type of doctor should be contacted.

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Hi, Julia.

      No, confabulation is not always related to dementia — there are a number of disorders that can cause confabulating, including subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissues that cover the brain, which can be caused by head injuries), and traumatic brain injuries.

      However, it could also be caused by several other things, such as a ruptured aneurism, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain, caused by an infection or an allergic reaction), brain tumors, Binswanger’s encephalopathy, multiple sclerosis, and psychotic disorders. It can also be caused by Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is related to long-term heavy use of alcohol.

      Of course, each of these might be expected to produce other symptoms, as well.

      Has the person never had any brain imaging (MRI or CT scan) to determine what sort of damage the car accidents might have done?

      If latest blow to the head was quite recent and/or brain imaging has never been done and this symptom developed quite recently, I’d be tempted to take the person to the emergency room. Even mild traumatic brain injuries can lead to serious consequences.

      It the injuries happened some time ago and the person has been exhibiting confabulations but not much of anything else by way of symptoms, I think I would take him to his regular doctor — asap — to get the ball rolling. Brain injuries and disorders can be difficult to diagnose, and may require evaluations by several different types of doctors, depending on what the initial findings are.

  2. lisa says:

    I have a husband who has a tramatic brain injury from a car accident several years ago. The confabulation with him is getting worse and worse. Hes accusing me of stuff that never happened, and he’s also saying things in his family happened that never happened. I’m at my wits end with this, because its getting to the point where he’s saying i did some pretty graphic stuff.. He says its like “deju vu”….

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Lisa, this sounds like it might be delusions (a psychosis) rather than confabulation. You might want to talk to his neuro about what’s going on. Confabulations can’t be treated, but delusions may respond to antipsychotics. If the neuro thinks you should try an antipsychotic, be sure to look into the potential side effects, such as extrapyramidal symptoms, so you know what to look out for.

  3. Maureen Brethet says:

    confabulation, very interesting. Is it possible that a sexual attraction be confabulated in to believing sex happened ?
    thank you

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Possible, yes. But there might be something else going on instead, depending on exactly what you’ve been observing. For example, many Alzheimer’s patients have “visual agnosia”, a symptom in which the eyes function properly but the brain interprets the signals incorrectly. This symptom comes and goes, and can be expressed in many different ways, one of which is difficulty with facial recognition. The patient may not recognize the face and assume it belongs to a different person — someone with whom the patient had sex. Or the behavior may be associated with aphasia, i.e., difficulty communicating. The patient may pull up a word with a sexual connotation when the word that is intended is associated with affection, for example. Then there are delusions — fixed beliefs that something has happened which hasn’t happened. A very typical delusion is to accuse the healthy spouse of sexual infidelity. Unfortunately, delusions tend to be very long-lasting and also very difficult to treat.

  4. richard meads says:

    is it possible that a whole race of people can be affected with confabulation
    here in nz we have “folk lore” that states that the maoris came by canoe from hawaii
    yet they only had a canoe that is proported to carry 60 people ? the maths dont work out there is not sufficient room to carry any food on board for the length of time taken to get here , they had no sails , they had no fire, they had no numeric system , they knew nothing of the stars,and all by paddles ?
    regards richard

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Hi, Richard. What an interesting question.

      Confabulation is a symptom that develops in a single individual, caused by some sort of damage to the brain. That person says things he firmly believes to be true due to memory dysfunction. For example, my husband started telling people he had headed a delegation to China and been an honored guest at a dinner given by Mao Tse-Tung. This was clearly not true. However, like most instances of confabulation, there was some basis in truth. He had headed a delegation to China and been an honored guest at a dinner given by Deng Xiaoping, the “paramount leader” of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to 1992. (It’s also possible that instead of being confabulation, this was an example of aphasia, specifically word retrieval problems, and that my husband knew it was Deng who invited him but couldn’t pull up his name.)

      Folk lore is not due to “mass confabulation.” Instead, it comprises legends that have their origins in times/cultures for which there are no written records, and which may very well have some basis in fact but which have become distorted by being handed down orally over hundreds of years. There is often a lot of controversy over what the facts might be and when and how they became distorted.

      I was intrigued by what you asked because Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki is one of my favorite books.

      While most modern historians/scientists don’t accept Heyerdahl’s theories on migration going from east to west, he certainly demonstrated that small craft could be used to travel thousands of miles of open sea and reach their intended destinations.

      Since I knew nothing of the Maori legends, I did a little googling. There appears to be ample support for the Maori folk lore.

      Early settlement of New Zealand (Aotearoa):

      An “outrigger canoe” has one or more lateral support floats, known as outriggers, for extra stability, and may even have two hulls. Compared to other types of canoes, outrigger canoes can be quite fast, yet are also capable of being paddled and sailed in rougher water. The sailing canoes are an important part of the Polynesian heritage and are raced and sailed in Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa and by the Maori of New Zealand.

      Te Reo Maori, the native language of the Maori, is related to Tahitian and Hawaiian. Names for outrigger canoes reflect this relationship. Outrigger canoes are thought to have been originally developed by the Austronesian-speaking peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia for sea travel. They were used to transport these peoples both eastward to Polynesia and New Zealand (where the Maori call them waka ama) and westward across the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar during the Austronesian migration period. The outrigger float is called the ama in many Polynesian and Micronesian languages. The spars connecting the ama to the main hull (or the two hulls in a double-hull canoe) are called iako in Hawaiian and kiato in Maori (with similar words in other Polynesian languages); in Micronesian languages, the term aka is used.

      Migration from Hawaii to New Zealand:

      In true Heyerdahl tradition, there has been a “worldwide” canoe voyage to demonstrate feasibility:

      While this voyage involved a single canoe, there’s no reason why migrations couldn’t have involved fleets of canoes. In fact, the migration legend of the coming of the Maori to New Zealand says it involved a Great Fleet of seven voyaging canoes.

      And possible explanations of some of what sound like the more fanciful aspects of the Maori legends:

  5. Linda says:

    I have learned from and truly appreciate this article and hope you don’t mind as I share a story:

    My son (38 yo) has had some truly dramatic confabulations. Most traumatic episode (for me, too) happened a few years ago. We were getting ready to go to a pot luck meal. He was pretty excited about seeing friends. He smiled and talked to me about it. I watched as his face clouded and then crumbled as he burst into tears. He said his dad had been killed in an accident the day before. His description was quite violent and bloody. I was shocked and, as he had never experienced to this degree, asked him questions. Believing it had happened, I became a bit angry that an outsider had told him instead of going through me first. (In addition to his learning disabilities, he has had 100+ neurosurgeries since ’98: hydrocephalus, Arnold Chiari, multiple complications.) It took a few frightening minutes for me to process and realize his younger brother and I had talked the night before & all was well. As I came to the conclusion that something big was happening, I texted his father (my ex-husband) and briefly told him the situation. He agreed to let our son call so he could see this was not true. My son stopped crying as we called him, said a few “uh huh’s” hung up the phone and growled, “That man’s a liar!” He then crumbled into my arms and sobbed for over an hour. I cannot tell you how this affected me, actually witnessing the transition as he had this “memory.” Previously, we were @c(out-of-state) neurosurgeon office for consult. He suddenly became agitated and said this doctor (whom he’d never met) had done surgery and wouldn’t let him go to sleep. He said it hurt when the doctor cut his head and, again, cried as he tried to run away. For obvious reasons, I felt it best to take him home.

    He is already seeing a psychiatrist for pain management. I shared this with him. He only Rx’d risperdal and said it should control this . .. no explanation. I assumed it was from all of the surgeries but also have Alzheimer’s in my family, 2 maternal, 2 paternal. I’m at a loss but, as I notice more minor incidents, I have made arrangements to bring my business home at end of this month. I don’t think he should be alone anymore. I would appreciate any suggestions. I’m sure I should find a specialist but not sure what kind.

    Thank you, by the way.

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Any time I feel sorry for myself, all I need to do is see stories like yours to put things into perspective.

      It’s going to take a little time to dig for the details, but I have confirmed that Chiari malformation hydrocephalus can cause dementia symptoms, including confabulating. I’ll see what all I can find about it. I’ll also see if I can find out whether Chiari hydrocephalus can cause confabulating without causing dementia symptoms.

      Risperdal is an antipsychotic. I’d guess that the psychiatrist believed you were describing delusions, which are a type of psychosis. I’d be very surprised if the drug did much for your son’s symptoms. Antipsychotics are typically avoided for use in patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Lewy body dementia, if at all possible — they have the potential for producing some serious side effects, and can speed the decline. I’ll see if I can find anything about their use in hydrocephalus patients. Bare minimum, you should familiarize yourself with the possible side effects so you’ll recognize them if they start to develop.

      I’ll also do some cogitating about specialists. My first blush reaction is a behavioral neurologist, quite possibly one who specializes in neurodegenerative dementias. I suspect there aren’t going to be any medicines that will help, but there may be non-drug interventions that would help the caregiver as well as the loved one, and they’d be the same for pretty much any disorder that causes dementia symptoms.


  6. Richard meads says:

    thank you for your reply re mass confabulation
    perhaps Im becoming a skeptic
    i have checked all the links posted yet i still come back to the facts that there is no possible or provable way for this migration to have occurred
    not without a numeric system which they didnt have
    there is no way a canoe with paddlers could have kept up with a pod of whales or a migrating godwit
    i have overlaid all known weavings patterns on to known star charts and can find no
    similarities in their systems that are pretainent
    there also happens to be no acheological evidence of a outrigger canoe of any description
    perhaps mass confabulation exists yet is not yet discovered

    to linda
    i had similar experiances with a relation after several tramatic episodes I got
    involved and constructed a ozone generating device
    this was turned on at night and had magical results
    there appears to be a lack of oxygen at sleep which sends the brain into a state when awake
    i hope this helps you

    1. AlzCarer says:

      The world needs more skeptics.

      I am not sure why you think a numeric system would be essential, or why you discard the idea of a sail. But then, I clearly haven’t studied this in nearly as much detail as you have. Keep working on it — some of the most astounding discoveries have been made by archeologists who were skeptical of widely-held hypotheses.

      In any event, even if the entire idea is misguided and unsupported, it would not be confabulation as the term is defined in medical circles. Being gullible, illogical, or easily swayed is not the same thing as having a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to retrieve memories.

      Maybe it’s closer to mass brainwashing?

  7. Beth says:

    I found your page while searching for information about false

    memories because of an incident which is causing me great distress.

    The issue is what I am convinced is a false memory my ex-mother in

    law experienced, and I am at a loss to understand how or why this

    one memory happened, the mechanisms within that produced it, and

    how to heal the incredibley painful family rift it has left in its wake.
    Background and characters involved are my family which includes

    myself, my 32 year old son (recently released from prison and living

    on his own, attending college, and a much changed man who is

    working hard to redeem himself and succeed after some bad life

    decisions in his youth), my 20 year old daughter (she is learning

    disabled and on the autism spectrum and has never had a father in

    the picture). She is not a “blood” grand daughter but has always

    been welcomed as such by my mother in law. I have a 2nd son who

    died 6 years ago at age 29.
    On the other side is my mother in law, her adult daughter, and 2

    adult sons, the one retired and the other my ex who is currently

    incarcerated for drug law violations related to marajuana. His entire

    life has been a series of incarcerations. Of her 3 children it was only

    my ex who lived in this area, both of the other siblings live out of

    state and are infrequent visitors to their mother, though his brother

    helps her with her finances and business decisions. My ex helped her

    with the more mundane homeowner type things, such as yard work,

    shovelling snow, and home repairs. His proximity and visits lent her a

    feeling of security and social interaction that I feel was vital as she is

    85 years old and lives alone (widowed). She has basically supported

    him for the last 20 years, buying him vehicles and paying his bills.

    She has always been very active, alert, self sufficient and is the

    kindest, most caring person I have ever known, offering financial and

    emotional support to all those in her life.
    For quite some time(years) she has suffered from fading memory,

    calling to have a tree removed (one that had been cut years ago),

    asking to have things repaired (that had already been repaired),

    forgetting things she was told or repeating things already stated.

    Those who observed these instances chalked it up as normal for her

    age and saying she’s “slipping a bit”.
    When my ex was arrested and jailed last fall, I knew this would be

    devastating emotionally for her. The fact there wasn’t anyone she

    would call if she had a need. She is the type who helps others, but

    won’t ask anyone for anything herself. Because she did’nt pay his 35k

    cash bail or hire him an attorney AGAIN he decided to punish her by

    not allowing her to visit, and won’t “forgive” her. He does not write

    her nor accept her letters.He’s almost 60 and this is like the 10th time

    he has been jailed (it’s why our marraige ended) and she has always

    paid his bail and paid his lawyers, visited, wrote letters, cash for

    commissary. He grew pot on state gameland, was caught redhanded

    with 2 full trash bags by a game warden. No reasonable person

    would think paying an attorney would stop a conviction and she

    couldn’t afford it. She was heartbroken over his arrest and then

    heartbroken again at his reaction to not having her pay his bail.
    Then we get an awful winter that just lasted forever, I don’t know

    anyone who lives in my area who didn’t go nearly insane from being

    stuck inside trapped by mountains of snow and horrid cold, it just

    went on and on. Everyone I talked to was depressed beyond hope

    and frantic for spring to come. And she spent it entirely alone. When

    I finally dug myself out in spring and spoke to her she told me she

    had often felt alone, but had never suffered such absolute loneliness

    as what she had that winter. It was heartwrenching to hear the

    hopelessness in her words, I don’t think she smiled once during my

    brief drop in visit, and when talking about the winter she began just

    naming off all her friends and neighbors and how ill and doing badly

    they each were. It was so unlike her I didn’t even know how to react,

    I almost started crying, and I felt so guilty I hadn’t called her more or

    stopped over. She always gives visitors a cookie, she didn’t seem to

    even remember that and she didn’t offer any. My anger at my ex was

    immense, letters he mailed my son had ranted about her with such

    anger and I was looking at the effects, something he would never

    have to face and admit was his doing.
    And now for the false memory event.
    She sends greeting cards to all family members for all holidays.

    Usually there will be 10-20 dollars cash in them, birthdays usually

    $200 give or take, christmas a bit more. These larger amounts are

    always in check form. Mail at my rural location is often lost or

    delivered in error, I get neighbors mail, they get mine, paychecks

    sometimes vanish entirely, so when my daughters card hadn’t arrived

    by the day before the actual date, and plans with my son to go

    rafting were considered, I had to tell him since she hadn’t gotten the

    card she might not go because of expenses. Whether it had been lost

    in the mail or she forgot to send it I told him it wasn’t appropriate to

    call her and bother her about it, she would get flustered or upset,

    and I wasn’t comfortable with making a call asking. I told him it was

    not an expectation on our part, it was a gift if we received them and

    not an obligation that she be required to send them. Because it was

    for my daughter, and even knowing my daughter was hurt it hadn’t

    come, I said no, don’t call. I had stopped receiving a card from her

    on mothers day a few years ago, something I was incredibly

    saddened by because she had sent them every year since I had

    married her son and gave birth to her grandchildren. I had lost a son

    and my mother, and it hurt. I would never make her aware had she

    forgotten, I wanted her to remember she had sent it even if perhaps

    she hadn’t.
    But my son wanted to fix what he was sure was a lost card, not a

    forgotten one, so he made the decision to call and talk to her. He

    had to leave her a message on her machine as she wasn’t home, and

    when he hadn’t heard back the next morning he called again and

    caught her at home. He was polite and sensitive to the delicacy

    appropriate to the making of such a call. She told him it should have

    arrived and she checked her calendar and said yes, she mailed it on

    thursday and if it didn’t arrive to let her know, she would replace it

    and assume the post office lost it. Once he completed the call he

    called me again to tell me he had called her and related the

    conversation they’de had, assuring me she wasn’t upset, and I was

    relieved he had taken it upon himself to do so, for his sister, knowing

    she would feel hurt had she not gotten it and not able to understand

    why “Granny Franny” didn’t send her one. I thanked him for calling

    her and told him we’de keep and eye out for it. Weeks pass it never

    arrived and no further mention was made to anyone other than my

    son, the issue was dropped and nothing more said. Words can’t fix

    some things, and I had no intention to call and tell her or have her

    replace it.
    While shopping with my sister she received a txt, and asked me

    what’s this about Chris (my son) calling and screaming at Fran about

    a birthday card? I was dumbstruck, and asked where she heard that

    at? She had from her daughter who dates my nephew and I was like

    “I don’t know what they’re talking about, that never happened. Yes

    he called about a card but thats all there is to it.”
    I got home later and resolved to call my nephew in the morning to

    chase down the trail of where the misinformation came from or what

    they were talking about, I don’t use social media and it sounded like

    someone was mad at my son and spreading rumours. His

    relationships with family members including myself had been volatile

    and acrimonious through the years before his incarceration. He is a

    marine and has PTSD and severe anxiety and anger issues. He chose

    to live with his father when we seperated, he told me as an adult he

    did so thinking I would come back if he stayed. At the time I thought

    it was because he liked it there better and just didn’t want to be with

    me because I initiated the seperation. Several years ago He assaulted

    his father while drinking, reennacting an episode of abuse his father

    had once perpatrated against him, resulting in a restraining order.

    He’de fought with his brother before his death, and had provoked

    many confrontations over the years. He’de gotten angry at his

    Grandmother over money she gave family members when he was

    incarcerated and her not helping him financially and had written her

    angry letters. But he did time, grew up and gained the maturity

    needed to mend the broken fences and make the heartfelt apologies,

    forgive the past abuses of his father and has turned the page to

    become a man I am proud of.
    Long story short, my mother in law called her daughter reporting

    my son called her and yelled at her about the birthday card, telling

    her she had ruined my daughters birthday by not sending a card and

    he hoped every one of her birthdays was ruined for the rest of her

    And with that call my world has become a place of severe

    emotional pain and hurt, threats and accusations made towards my

    son, myself, and my daughter. My son called his grandmother to try

    to find out why she said he did that, her response was that in her

    heart she WANTS to believe him and her faith tells her to forgive him,

    so she “remembers” he did it but will forgive him.
    When those who actually took the time to listen to my son, or me

    about my son, realized they did believe him they then moved on to

    thinking it must have been me. How they can even imagine that I

    would have done such a thing is incomprehensible to me. I have

    been friends with her daughter since I met her, we were as close as

    sisters. I swore on my dead sons ashes and she still didn’t believe

    me, even though she tried to say she did, it was clear she didn’t

    because I had to swear on them 3 more times and still it wasn’t

    enough. I was crying so hard I could barely speak. She then began

    asking if it could have been my daughter! She’s almost non-verbal

    with anyone but me, and has made maybe 3 phone calls in her life

    and only when I forced her to. My heart feels literally torn from me,

    that this family I have loved and felt loved by in return could so

    quickly decide that not just me but both my remaining children mean

    so little that they would basically throw us under a bus without a

    moments hesitation rather than even begin to entertain the thought

    that the truth is that it never happened! This woman we all love so

    much is experiencing the most frightening and distressing of

    emotions and needs to be protected and helped. But whats

    happening is a witchhunt instead.
    I tried explaining it doesn’t matter if they believe me or not, there

    belief isn’t a requirement for me to know it didn’t happen. It’s like I

    have to take them completely out of the equation, whether or not its

    true for anyone else the fact is she remembers it that way, therefore

    that is her reality. I’m terrified for her because as long as they

    continue to focus on thinking one of us did it and refusing to address

    the elephant in the room, the potential for additional emotional pain

    and escalating potentially devastating repercussions increases for

    both the “victim” and the “accused”. In other words, at least in this

    initial instance, not them! I don’t know what to do or even how to

    handle this, I havn’t suffered such heartache since the loss of my

    son. And I’m scared.
    When I first was told this “rumour” originated from my mother in

    law and that she truely believed it had happened I knew immediately

    it had to be related to the onset of more severe issues with her

    memory. My only conclusion that made some sort of sense was my

    son’s call might have made her feel confused or on the spot, maybe

    she “remembered” mailing it but hadn’t and began feeling she was

    being accused, or felt defensive. If she became emotionally worked

    up could she have somehow had other past memories of my son start

    filtering thru and blending into her recall of the phonecall? Could his

    negative acts in the past related to her somehow get cobbled into the

    mix and gel into some “combined” new memory that incorperated

    what really was said and things “felt” or percieved or remembered?

    Could the circumstances of my ex being jailed and the subsequent

    rejection by him,depression, loneliness accelerate or increase the

    possibility of her memory declining or having false ones occur? The

    first person she told that he called and yelled at her was her

    daughter, who admitted to me she became so angry she grabbed

    the ball and ran with it … “cut him from the will…get a restraining

    order.” She has not spoken or seen my son in over 10 years and

    knows nothing about the person he is today. Could her immediate

    acceptance and belief that he did it have cemented the flawed

    memory further? Somehow her validation that it was real made it

    more real?
    I had trouble understanding alot of how this type memory is

    created/triggered as I am not a researcher just a very confused

    person seeking any insight that might help me help her, or help me

    to at least be able to convince them to seek testing. I have a feeling

    they would rather just blame someone and move on, there is a

    strong streak of childish self centeredness among her children.

    Catering to a false memory is easier than visiting and making appts or

    taking her to drs. or negotiating a bed in a nursing facilty. Every

    aspect of this situation leads me to new layers of even deeper

    sadness but I would rather wear a false cloak labelled guilt and learn

    to live knowing she thinks I am a horrible person than just walk away

    and do nothing to try to help her. Her children seem to be willing to

    wait til someone finds her wandering on a road on her way to pick

    them up from preschool before they inconvenience themselves facing

    the reality of her situation. If she can “remember” something awful

    my son did to her, how many more “memories” might we have to

    address with accusations and fingerpointing? I don’t know if I can

    weather this first one! If I can’t convince them to believe me or take

    this seriously I have decided I will have to completely sever myself

    and my daughter’s lives from theirs for our own protection.
    Any insight or advice is appreciated. Sorry this is so long. Thank


    1. AlzCarer says:

      Hi, Beth.

      Confabulation is associated with pretty much any sort of disorder that causes “memory loss”. You probably won’t be able to track down a specific set of memories that combined in her mind to produce this one, specific confabulation. And really, it isn’t relevant. It happened, it got blown way out of proportion because none of you are used to what’s happening to her, and now what’s important is:

      How do you help this woman you love?

      You are describing dementia. Dementia is not a specific disorder. Rather, it is used to mean a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory (the memory problems you mention are NOT normal at any age), personality changes, and impaired reasoning.

      Dementia can be caused by all sorts of different things, many of which can be treated. So what is essential is finding out what is causing her symptoms.

      She’s elderly, she’s widowed, she lives alone, she’s been isolated by a severe winter and, as a result, may not have been eating well.

      Obvious candidates for what may be causing her symptoms:
      – Depression
      – Vitamin deficiency (especially Vitamin D and B12)
      – Hormone imbalance (e.g., hypothyroidism)
      – Side effects of medicines she may be taking — including over-the-counter medicines such as sleep aids — especially if she isn’t following the correct dosing regimen due to her memory problems
      – An untreated / undiagnosed infection
      – Cardiovascular disease
      – Alzheimer’s

      The risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age. People who are 85 years old have a 35-50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

      If her children live out of state and rarely see her, they will not be aware of the severity of her condition. And even if they are becoming uneasy about what they have observed, doing something about it when they don’t live nearby can be very difficult, anyway. They may not even know where to start.

      The place to start is with a good doctor, one who understands what aging can do to the body and brain. Your mother-in-law needs a thorough physical. Would it be natural for you to suggest it’s time for her “regular” physical and offer to take her? Notify the doctor in advance the reason for the appointment and provide a brief (brief!) list of the behaviors that worry you. It would be best if you could actually be present during the appointment, so you can hear for yourself what the doctor says. (Your mother-in-law is likely to forget and/or misunderstand). I’d suggest that you sit where she can’t see you but the doctor can, so you can signal to him if you think her answers are misleading. One of the biggest problems with diagnosing dementia is that the patient may have a symptom called “anosognosia”. This is a lack of self-awareness, an inability to realize that they actually have cognitive or physical problems. You don’t want to argue with her, contradict her, or make her feel defensive or embarrassed.

      The doctor will (should) go over the medicines she’s taking, check for things like irregular heartbeat (including a brief EKG that can probably be done in the office), and order a thorough blood and urine analysis. He may be able to get a feel for whether she is clinically depressed. He’ll probably also do a very short “quiz” called the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE).

      The physical may reveal the underlying problem(s). If not, then the doctor will order additional tests — a CT scan or MRI, perhaps a carotid ultrasound, an EEG, etc.

      Meanwhile, I’m very concerned about your mother-in-law living all alone without the help she needs. So I’d suggest that you contact her Area Agency on Aging:

      to find out what programs and services are available where she lives. They can probably also help you figure out what else you can do to help her. And I’m sure they’ll be all too used to family conflicts, and may have some excellent advice on how to smooth things over with her family.

  8. Joann says:

    Hi – thanks for your article. I’ve been trying to figure out why my 85 year old mom keeps making up these stories that aren’t true, using bits and pieces from true experiences.

    One thing my mom does that I have not found anywhere on the internet is what I call “parroting”. So I will say something like “boy that banana is rotten”. She will immediately agree and then in 5-10 minutes she says “that is a very rotten banana” as if its an original thought and was never even discussed. Is this the same as short-term memory loss? This parroting occurs quite frequently.

    BTW – I took her for a dementia test to her doctor and her doctor said to me “so what if she’s making up stories, have you not ever embellished a bit”. So much for early detection.

    Thanks for your assistance.

    1. AlzCarer says:

      Hi, Joann.

      Usually, we think of the same question being asked over and over again as being caused by short-term memory loss, as opposed to remembering having heard the phrase but not where it came from. However, I suppose the parroting could be another form of repetitive questioning. Another possibility is that it is a form of compensation. When the usual pathways for brain function aren’t working well, the brain will use alternate approaches to achieve the same objective. For example, if memory doesn’t pull up the “right” answer, the brain may try observation coupled with logic to get to the same goal. The parroting may be associated with a need to communicate with you, and what you have just said may be the easiest way to come up with something to say that would be of interest to you. It also sounds a bit like “perseveration” — the persistent repetition of a word, gesture, or act that is often associated with brain damage or schizophrenia — which is a common symptom in Alzheimer’s patients.

      I’m not surprised the doctor didn’t recognize confabulation as being associated with dementia — it’s rarely studied in dementia patients, and is not widely recognized as being a symptom of Alzheimer’s outside of select circles of specialists. Certainly, it’s not used as a way to help screen for dementia in the earlier stages.

      Her doctor may not know much about dementia. Many general practitioners and internists are woefully ignorant, and don’t like to work with dementia patients and therefore don’t keep up to speed on the latest in diagnostics. You may wish to look for a so-called “memory disorder clinic” to get the best possible evaluation for your mom. There are many disorders that can cause dementia symptoms that are treatable.

  1. Behavioral Problems » Alzheimer's Compendium says:

    [...] Confabulation: Honest Lying [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.