Confabulation

Are you conscious right now?

That’s not a nice thing to do, I know. Some of you read that sentence and went hang on, fuck you, and I just want to reassure you that as far as I know, yes, you are, you’re reading words I wrote on a blog. But when you read that question, there’s a very good statistical likelihood that your brain did something. Your brain threw up some sort of weird routine where you could tell it checked, even if it then went on to dismiss the question.

There’s a whole wing of studying the way our brains work – not brain surgery, not that kind of stuff or neurochemistry, but studying the behaviour of brains, the way that minds operate. There’s definitely related stuff – you can think of it as the difference between researching hardware versus operating systems versus applications.

Confabulation is an old idea in the study of human mind and memory, and it’s largely been given a hard definition when examining medically divergent brain behaviour. Specifically, it’s most commonly examined in people who have memory disorders, and even more specifically, those memory disorders were often the kind induced by lobotomies or corpus collosotomy, where the hemispheres of the brain are surgically sliced apart. Rough!

Confabulation, as first developed for this was the way that the subject (a person) would make up meaningful explanations for courses of actions that they may not have had a reason to actually do. An example is that people with split brains can be fed information that one ‘half’ of the brain receives and acts on, such as picking up an object, but then the other half of the brain will claim to have a completely coherent explanation for why they did what they did. This is obviously weird and there’s all sorts of implications and then those implications run into neuroatypicalities that got a lot harder to study when we approached medical science with biases like ‘women be whacky’ and ‘easier to stick a needle in your eye to cut up your brain than treat autism and epilepsy like actual things.’

I know there are some DID friends of mine who are reading this going ‘well duhhh,’ about confabulation.

Thing is, your brain is really, really good at sense-making. It’s one of the reasons why being confused or deprived of sensory information is so fundamentally scary: Your brain is used to filling in where you have gaps, and it will start coming up with some nonsense to make sense out of the nothing. It’s also why being plunged into the dark is scary as hell for sighted folk, but unsighted folk are already pretty good at handling that, so their brains are less likely to conjure up fanciful stuff. If you find something in your hand, that you don’t remember putting there, you immediately have to conjure reasons for it.

Then there’s the thing magicians already know:

This isn’t a thing limited to neuroatypical people.

This is something everyone’s brains do all the time.

When you move an object in palm, your viewer will imagine they know where it’s going because their brain is really good at constructing meaningful paths; that you can make a ball dance up your sleeve, across your shoulders and down into your other palm is a more meaningfully likely course of action than that the ball never left your other hand. People will believe they shuffled decks that you never let them shuffle, they will believe that you didn’t say something you did, they will construct a narrative of the experience in front of them that you know doesn’t gel with reality, because you know what actually happened because you did it. Who you gunna believe, me, or your lying eyes?

Hell, this runs deep. Studies of this thing the eye does, called saccades indicate that human sensory input is being fed in a great big slurry of stuff and the brain sorts it out, then tells the brain – itself – that it all makes sense.  See, your eye is not still: your eye is jiggling around in its socket and then feeding the you that ‘sees’ the image a still version composed out of all the wobbly bits. That’s also why you don’t see your nose, even though if you think about it, it’s right there in the middle of your field of view.

Magic at its root is the science of controlling audience attention. It’s about recognising the world not just as a thing you see but as a thing that your brain is interpreting for you, and your brain has a vested interest in ensuring that your brain is considered a reliable narrator on this front.

Incidentally, most of my friends are deeply apathetic about stage magic. I have a pet theory that people who live in a world that already tells them their expectations and brain operations are weird and wrong aren’t likely to be impressed by finding me do the same thing with a bloody playing card.

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