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Confabulation and constructive memory

  • Sarah K. RobinsEmail author
S.I.: Psych&Phil


Confabulation is a symptom central to many psychiatric diagnoses and can be severely debilitating to those who exhibit the symptom. Theorists, scientists, and clinicians have an understandable interest in the nature of confabulation—pursuing ways to define, identify, treat, and perhaps even prevent this memory disorder. Appeals to confabulation as a clinical symptom rely on an account of memory’s function from which cases like the above can be contrasted. Accounting for confabulation is thus an important desideratum for any candidate theory of memory. Many contemporary memory theorists now endorse Constructivism, where memory is understood as a capacity for constructing plausible representations of past events (e.g., De Brigard in Synthese 191:155–185, 2014; Michaelian in Philos Psychol 24:323–342, 2012, 2016). Constructivism’s aim is to account for and normalize the prevalence of memory errors in everyday life. Errors are plausible constructions that, on a particular occasion have led to error. They are not, however, evidence of malfunction in the memory system. While Constructivism offers an uplifting repackaging of the memory errors to which we are all susceptible, it has troubling implications for appeals to confabulation in psychiatric diagnosis. By accommodating memory errors within our understanding of memory’s function, Constructivism runs the risk of being unable to explain how confabulation errors are evidence of malfunction. After reviewing the literature on confabulation and Constructivism, respectively, I identify the tension between them and explore how different versions of Constructivism may respond. The paper concludes with a proposal for distinguishing between kinds of false memory—specifically, between misremembering and confabulation—that may provide a route to their reconciliation.


Confabulation Remembering Constructive memory Memory errors Psychiatric nosology 



I am grateful to attendees of the Early Career Scholars Conference in Philosophy of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the audience at a University of Kansas colloquium for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper. Special thanks to Serife Tekin and Kourken Michaelian for their feedback and conversations about confabulation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA

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