The Storytelling Animal

How stories make us human

Shotgunnings and Clawhammerings

Adventures with the storytelling mind.

LR was an average looking young man. There was nothing menacing in his eyes or the set of his jaw or the way he held his hands. But one day, quite without prompting, he confessed to a horrendous crime. He described it with cold panache, without the slightest twinge of regret in his voice.

LR: "Okay, I'll tell you what happened. In 1978, I shot a man in the back of the head in a shop in Cambridge. I put one cartridge into him. My brother David put about eight into him. I shot a man in the leg called Conrad Carlton."

Doctor: "When was this?"

LR: "About 1978. I frogmarched him from St. Neots right into the Midlands with a shotgun pointed at him. It was an empty shotgun."

Doctor: "Was this on foot?"

 LR: "Yeah. Right into the Midlands, about 80-odd miles...I was on the television."

Doctor: "How did you end up on television?"

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LR: "Because I had a shotgun pointed at him, you know. I was sort of notorious you know. We had a bit of fame — well the wrong sort of fame — but, you know, we got into a sort of contest and he could have lost his life. If I had aimed a few inches higher I could have killed him."*

LR went on like this for a long time, utterly untroubled by his own inconsistencies and leaps in logic.  The brutal saga culminated with bad men shotgunning LR's father in the head and then finishing him off with claw hammers and axes. Then one of the bad men shotgunned a hole in LR's head. But before they could finish LR with their hammers and axes, an ambulance whisked him off to the hospital, where doctors worked heroically to save his life.

As you have probably guessed by now, there's something fishy in LR's tale. LR is not a killer.  LR is mentally ill. LR invented an elaborate fictional world for himself and lived stubbornly inside of it.

LR's story is an example of pathological confabulation: the creation of wild and largely implausible fictions that a person nonetheless believes with rock-jawed certainty. A paranoid schizophrenic makes herself the struggling protagonist in a conspiracy between evil aliens and corrupt politicians. Amnesiacs with Korsakov's syndrome are constantly forgetting who they are, and constantly spinning and re-spinning new identities for themselves. Patients with Cotard's Delusion maintain a host of interesting explanations for why they appear to be alive when they are in fact stone dead. Confabulators who have lost an arm or leg may adamantly deny it.  When asked to move the missing limb, the amputee will invent a reason for why she won't, an explanation that involves arthritis or a rebellion against her doctor's badgering. (Then there is The Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After King Arthur cleaves away both of the knight's arms, the confabulating knight insists, "it's just a flesh wound." Arthur points out, "You've got no arms left!" As arterial blood fountains from his stumps, the knight responds, "Yes, I have!")

These examples of confabulation in damaged or diseased brains are not only fascinating in themselves, they are fascinating for the way they illuminate the function of healthy minds.  Psychologists are finding that ordinary, mentally healthy people are strikingly prone to confabulate in everyday situations. 

For example, psychologists asked a group of shoppers to choose between seven pairs of identically priced socks. After inspecting the socks and making their choices, the shoppers were asked to give reasons for their choice.  Typically, shoppers explained their choices on the basis of subtle differences in color, texture, and quality of stitching. In fact, all seven pairs of socks were identical.  There actually was a pattern in the shoppers' preferences, but no one was able to detect it: shoppers tended to choose socks on the right side of the array.  Instead of answering that they had no idea why they chose the socks they did, the shoppers told a story that made their decisions appear to be rational.  But they weren't. The stories were confabulations — lies, honestly told.*

In a more recent study, psychologists asked subjects to choose between two faces (A, B). Then, by sleight of hand, the psychologists switched the two faces so that  the subjects didn't notice (C). The psychologists then asked why the subject chose the face they did (D). The subjects, who did not detect the switch, then made up a reason for why they chose the face that they did not in fact choose. For example, one subject claimed that she liked the face she didn't choose because the woman looked like her aunt.

These may seem like tame examples. Does it really matter if the stories we tell ourselves all day long — about why a spouse closed the laptop as we entered the room or why a colleague has a guilty look on her face — have a basis in fact? Who cares whether we make up stories about socks? But there is a dark side to our tendency to impose stories where they do not exist, and nothing reveals it like a good conspiracy theory. Stay tuned: That will be the subject of my next post. 

*The dialogue with L. R. and the example of sock-choice and confabulation are both discussed in Hirstein, William (ed.) Confabulation: Views From Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 

 Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

 

Jonathan Gotschall, Ph.D., is an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania.

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