Welcome to another installment in our acclaimed series, “Creepy-Ass Topics in Psychology.” Today’s topic is: confabulation. This is a common phenomenon, especially during early adolescence; some youngsters will confabulate as many as four times a day, as in, “BRANDON! QUIT CONFABULATING ALREADY! I NEED IN THE BATHROOM!”
No, no, wait. We are confusing our phenomena here. Confabulation actually refers to false memory -- in other words, belief in an event that never actually took place. For example, you might believe you once belched the most voluptuous, earth-rocking belch ever to erupt from any human being who was not either a Metropolitan Opera company member or the late Queen Mother. However, you would be wrong, because that particular belch was actually belched by my cousin in 2006. There, your memory is false. See how it works? In fact, if you believe anything at all, that’s probably just you confabulating away again.
Here's something else confabulation explains: nostalgia. Exhibit A is the wealth of websites out there eulogizing novelty food products that no longer exist, such as “Shake-A-Pudd’n." I found this product at an astounding website called In the ‘80s, where people gather to remember the products of the era. For instance: if you want to see an example of true and violent human passion, click at your own risk on the entry for Franco-American Macaroni and Cheese, a discontinued product. For those who prefer just a small sampling, here are a few unretouched comments from visitors to the mac-and-cheese lament page:
- “The Chef Boyardee version is NOTHING like this icon. It was a sad day when this went off the market.”
- “PLEASE OH PLEASE BRING BACK FA MAC AND CHEESE1 I GREW UP ON IT AND ITS MY NUMBER ONE COMFORT FOOD WHY DID YOU STOP MAKING IT? EVERYONE LOVED IT PLEASE PUT IT BACK IN STORE PLEASE?”
- “I remember this in the 1980's. I can close my eyes and remember the unique cheese flavor.”
- “I'm 65 years old and had been eating F.A. mac and cheese, I think, since it first came out. It was that good. I really miss it and hope it comes back on the market in my lifetime.”
- “BRING IT BACK - PLEASE....”
Clearly, people believe they experienced some sort of spiritual orgasm from eating these products, whereas in fact they probably just shook a pudd’n and dumped it in the trash. (Psssst, Franco-American Macaroni and Cheese fans: I am not referring to you guys, okay? I’m sure that particular product yielded nothing short of a mac-n-cheesy religious experience! Please don’t come near my home! Thank you!) Anyway, you see what I’m saying? Our friend confabulation at work again.
Exhibit B is an op-ed piece, by writer Joan Wickersham, which appeared earlier this month in the Boston Globe (“Boston’s Only Newspaper Named After A Globe”). Entitled “My first summer job,” the piece is a gentle ode to our first employments, as teenagers, when we spent most of our time at work screwing up. Yet – as we did not realize at the time, but would realize later – we were learning Valuable Life Skills that would set us on the Path to Adulthood. The idea here is that these jobs, however pointless or boring we may find them at the time, are teaching us Who We Will Become. One day, we will realize how much we owe to those initial shy, clumsy experiences – our first summer jobs.
Now, obviously, Ms. Wickersham speaks (a) from her own personal experience and (b) for a whole lot of people, but let’s face it, there are only two possible explanations here. One, we are looking at a classic case of mass confabulation. Two – and I mean no disrespect here – her article refers to summer jobs on the Planet Gwuhhhhhhhhh. Because summer job nostalgia is unmerited on this planet. Seriously, why would anybody want to remember summer jobs? I advocate electroshock therapy to avoid remembering summer jobs. I recommend self-induced concussions, if necessary.
The piece states: “Summer jobs are a rite of passage […] It’s where we fall down and get up again. It’s the place where we make mistakes — not because we’re stupid or lazy, but because we don’t yet know any better. We scoop ice cream, we bag groceries, we find out what happens when we show up late to walk the dog. It’s where we start to learn.”
Somehow this compelled me to look back at the very first essay I ever wrote for this blog – “How I Spent My Summer Vexation” – from which I present my OWN statement on the same topic:
“Being a summer gig, mine has lasted only 2 1/2 months, but bear in mind this is equal to 387 Customer Service years. … [In] Customer Service (motto: “Smilingly Refunding Your Befouled Froot Loops Since 1805″), I have had the opportunity to perform numerous vital functions, such as: (1) Taking back fetid seafood, (2) Taking back REALLY fetid seafood, (3) Announcing over the speaker to various managerial beings with names like ‘Stan’ that they have a call on ‘405,’ (4) Directing customers to the restrooms, and (5) If restrooms are full, directing customers to the Fresh Maine Lobster tank … Thus, needless to say, my mental state has been such of late as to render me unable to create anything nutritive (or non-phlegm-based)."
Not that I am bitter that I didn’t get asked to be in the “Boston Globe.” If that IS its name.
So if you ask me, there’s no question that people confabulate their summer-job memories. I think the real question here is: Why? Not, “Why would we want to have had good experiences?” but “Supposing they were actually bad, why would we want to remember them as good?” In other words, isn’t there something to be said for remembering things the way they WERE, especially if they were painful and comical? Sure, those experiences are no fun at the time, but there’s endless material to be derived from them. Not to mention, painful experiences can actually produce joy, pleasure, laughter! Especially they happen to someone else! If you ask me, the best kind of nostalgia comes from remembering other people’s pain. Call me sentimental if you must.
I do want to stress that my aim is not to pass judgment on people who remember their summer jobs as positive experiences. It’s not mine to say whether those people are confabulating their memories or not.* But, if you are remembering something falsely, there’s something to be said for exploring that memory and seeing if you can’t come to remember things the way they actually were. Your life will be richer for it. I know mine has been, ever since I won the Preakness back in ’77, under the name of Seattle Slew.
* They are, duh.
©2010 Nicola McEldowney