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Paperback | $21.00 Short | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780262582711 | 301 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 illus.| August 2006

Essential Info

Brain Fiction

Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation


Some neurological patients exhibit a striking tendency to confabulate—to construct false answers to a question while genuinely believing that they are telling the truth. A stroke victim, for example, will describe in detail a conference he attended over the weekend when in fact he has not left the hospital. Normal people, too, sometimes have a tendency to confabulate; rather than admitting "I don't know," some people will make up an answer or an explanation and express it with complete conviction. In Brain Fiction, William Hirstein examines confabulation and argues that its causes are not merely technical issues in neurology or cognitive science but deeply revealing about the structure of the human intellect.

Hirstein describes confabulation as the failure of a normal checking or censoring process in the brain—the failure to recognize that a false answer is fantasy, not reality. Thus, he argues, the creative ability to construct a plausible-sounding response and some ability to check that response are separate in the human brain. Hirstein sees the dialectic between the creative and checking processes—"the inner dialogue"—as an important part of our mental life. In constructing a theory of confabulation, Hirstein integrates perspectives from different fields, including philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology to achieve a natural mix of conceptual issues usually treated by philosophers with purely empirical issues; information about the distribution of certain blood vessels in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, for example, or the behavior of split-brain patients can shed light on the classic questions of philosophy of mind, including questions about the function of consciousness. This first book-length study of confabulation breaks ground in both philosophy and cognitive science.

About the Author

William Hirstein is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Elmhurst College.


“[Hirstein] provides a much-needed chronicling of the varied expressions of confabulation. This important, understudied topic rests at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, and students in any of these disciplines will find much stimulating material.” —S.A. Huettel, CHOICE

“Hirstein's synoptic review gathers many of the clues, making it an excellent starting point for thinking about the biological mechanisms that help us make sense of the world. Personally, I welcome an author ready to go out on some interesting limbs more than one who hugs the trunk of proof.” —Dan Lloyd, American Scientist

“Hirstein has put together a book attempting to take a look at the big picture of confabulation, creating a fascinating thesis. He unites a wealth of neuroanatomical evidence related to the notion of confabulation into a coherent theory based on the common deficits possessed by all such patients, relating his ideas to such diverse topics as theory of mind, the concept of self, and notions of free will.” —Kathleen B. McDermott and Karl K. Szpunar, Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Brain Fiction offers one of the most extensive accounts of false memories and perceptions.”—Armin Schnider, Science

“Hirstein has packed a wealth of scientific information into this book.”—John Bickle, Journal of Consciousness Studies


“The most comprehensive treatment of the subject of confabulation ever written, Hirstein's Brain Fiction represents a pathbreaking and bold synthesis of philosophy and neuroscience. I expect it will prove to be a major resource for scholars and students of this fascinating and important subject for years to come.”
Todd E. Feinberg, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, author of Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self

“Both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, William Hirstein writes from his unique vantage point with great scholarship, precision, and clarity to tackle some of the deeper mysteries of the human mind. Brain Fiction is full of profound insights, and I recommend it to all who wish to better understand our human nature.”
Fredric Schiffer, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Of Two Minds