The Confabulous Mind – An investigator of the paranormal searches out human memory

Originally published by SIGNUM
Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee: No. Fred hates them.
Fred: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
-*Lost Highway*

A few years ago, while having dinner with a friend in my Dublin city centre apartment, I witnessed what I perceived to be an outrageously serious crime. Hearing activity outside my second story window, I looked out to see four Garda (police) officers running towards my building, their car parked askew, doors open. They split into two pairs, a duo disappearing up a side street, while the others continued towards my window, below which stood a man, dressed in a jogging suit and cap. He did not put up any resistance as he was handcuffed and led towards the car. They were about halfway there when the other two guards arrived from behind, having presumably covered potential methods of escape. As they drew level, one of them landed a punch on the back of the captive’s head, knocking him on his face to the ground. The guards dragged him into the car, and drove away at high speed.

I was left standing at my window, shocked and disturbed by what I had seen. Gathering my wits, I decided that I had to do *something*. As a researcher and hesitant debunker of the paranormal, I was familiar with the fragility of recalled experience, so I decided to document the situation as quickly as possible. It had all happened too quickly to photograph, but within twenty minutes, I had typed up an account. My reasoning was that if it was required of me, I had a *document* that I could confidently refer to as being *my* perceptions of that night. This document became my official statement, as presented to the police, when through a series of letters between the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice, I managed to file an official complaint with the Garda Complaints Board, an institution created so that the Gardai can investigate themselves – a system which understandably has its critics.
After months of letters and interviews with senior officers, I received a curt letter from the Complaints Board, informing me that ‘neither an offence or a breach of discipline on the part of any member of complained of has been disclosed’. I replied, enquiring as to whether this meant that the reported event had not taken place (i.e., was I lying or delusional?), or if it had, were they telling me that it wasn’t a crime to knock a handcuffed, unresisting prisoner to the ground with a blow to the back of the head? Did they accept my claim, but couldn’t find any more evidence to corroborate it?
The Complaints Board could tell me none of these things. I was told that ‘the Board does not record reasons for its decisions. In these circumstances, I am not in a position to provide a detailed response to the questions you have raised.’ Was I satisfied? Like hell I was.
Since that incident, it with no small sense of incredulity and sympathy that I read about the courtroom testimony of witnesses, while under interrogation by barristers. Can YOU recall precisely what you did last Thursday, never mind remember what you got up to on the night of, say, Thursday April 3rd 1997, to pick a date at random?
Trains, Planes, and Folies à Deux
‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’
-Sherlock Holmes in *A Study in Scarlet*,
Arthur Conan Doyle

Getting embroiled in the murky world of alleged paranormal phenomena tends to bring home the unreliable nature of human memory. As editor of *Blather* for the past four years, a contributor to Fortean Times for longer, and an occasional consultant to the likes of the Discovery Channel and the BBC, I had dealings with dozens of people about their allegedly paranormal experiences. It got to the point where I couldn’t have a quiet drink without someone telling me their ghost stories.
Regardless of how momentous an experience was – and sometimes *because* the moment was such an epiphany – memories fade or mutate over time. They also grow in the retelling. It’s a very human thing; we all swell our stories a little, to make them more exciting, incredible, or dramatic, especially if we don’t think the listener believes us. The potential for memory to twist experience in the retelling becomes very evident when speaking to someone about a truly wild event, like a poltergeist haunting or UFO sighting. While, in most cases, the claimant seems sincere about their experience (regardless of what they themselves believe), the investigator is often left wondering how close the report is to the actual historical event being investigated. Sometimes events conspire to gut the matter wide open, exposing the foibles of human nature.
For example, on December 14th, 1997 (I know this, because I wrote it down), I spent a chilly evening on Bull Island, a large sandbank and wildfowl reserve just north of Dublin city centre. Out there in the dark with me were several members of the Irish Centre for UFO Studies. These people, based on ‘predictions,’ were convinced that on this night, at the three points in Ireland where certain mysterious ‘flightpaths’ intersected, UFOs would drop into the atmosphere, and show themselves to us. Bull Island was at one of these alleged intersections. None of the people I was there with seemed to find it interesting that the person making these predictions was an experienced astronomer, and that December 14th is the day after the peak of the Geminid meteor showers. I would also care to point out that Bull Island is right below the path of aircraft arriving from an easterly direction and landing at Dublin airport.
None of this mattered to these people, who were having bladder-loosening epiphanies at the very sight of a light flickering above the horizon, only to slump into mild despair as the ‘UFO’ became a very Identifiable Flying Object. Dublin is a busy little airport, so it can be imagined how many times this sequence of events took place over four hours. They nearly went nuts whenever a lonely meteor streaked across the sky. At 10pm or so, a mildly despondent bunch of skywatchers slouched towards Raheny, to catch trains home. Still excited at having been out looking for UFOs, they seemed to accept that nothing fantastic had transpired. As I listened to my walkman on the train, it seemed that a war of the worlds fever had attacked Dublin, with the painfully irritating talk-radio presenter Chris Barry discussing anomalous sightings of *Venus*.
I thought I’d heard of the end of that night – it seemed agreed that the aliens had, once again, stood up the waiting fans. But some weeks later, when I bumped into one the Bull Island skywatchers, gone was the despondency of December 14th. The photographs of that night had been developed and lo! what had they accidently photographed? Some UFOs! I never got to see the photographs, but soon got wind that the skywatchers were generally regarding December 14th as a success, and that they *had* in fact seen some extra-terrestrial craft.
Despite it being my contention that December 14th was chosen especially because of its proximity to the meteor showers, I’m not of the opinion that these people deliberately decided to retrospectively turn what had been a ‘failure’ into a event of (perhaps) earth-shattering proportions. I think they quietly chose to remember that night as one of great personal importance, regardless of what ‘really’ happened… and regardless of what some sceptical hack thought he didn’t see. After all, fabrication of the facts is always more difficult than telling the truth, if only because one has to remember the details of the lie. The truth is easier to remember. But if a person doesn’t realise that they are fibbing, (even consciously – ‘I’m just fleshing it out’) how do they remember the line between truth and fiction? Does it matter?
Keeping the Bath-Monster Wet
Stuck as most of us seem to be, in the hell of Aristotelean logic, we can’t help ourselves from throwing out the bath-monster with the bath-water. Just because a ‘reputable member of society’ claims something crazy, it doesn’t mean that the events they recollect actually occurred. And just because the measurable facts contradict the claims of someone, it doesn’t follow that this person is a liar, or a lunatic. For them, the experience may have been very real. So we’re left with:

1. What REALLY happened. If you believe in absolute objectivity. If nobody hears a tree falling on blue eyed polar bear taking a shit in the woods, did it really happen? Maybe.
2. What was REALLY experienced by the claimant.
3. What the claimant remembers, presumably based on point 2.

It’s truly a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, but we have never been a species for turning down any chance of dissection and rampant reductionism.
While point 1. is possibly an absolute ideal, some aspects *are* measurable. For example, if someone reports having witnessed a UFO at a certain time and date, it’s relatively straightforward to check out the ‘probable’ causes and ask the sceptical questions: what was the weather like, were the heavens visible, were there any aircraft in the vicinity? Unless figures are fudged towards some desired result (subjectivity gets dragged in again), the facts should stand unsupported. Not being big on belief, I’m not sure I go for the idea of absolute objectivity, or the idea that any human being is capable of it. I think we’re capable of objectivity *to a point*, which is probably in the form of subjectivity while taking other factors into consideration…
Point 2 suggests the difference between what ‘really’ happened, and what really happened *to the observer* – if it was really a 50m long blimp painted in luminous paint, but the observer perceives a glowing disk, then we have a problem. Just because there was a luminous blimp in the area *does not* negate the possibility of outsized transient lumps of crockery being in the neighbourhood as well. Hence, we can’t prove that the observer didn’t see one.
This is a bit like the old joke: Tom arrives on the scene, notices Dick carefully spreading a fine powder on the floor. In reply to Tom’s enquiries, Dick informs him that it’s ‘Elephant Dust’ for the purposes of keeping elephants away. ‘But there are no elephants around here!’ yells Tom. ‘Works, then, doesn’t it?’ sez Dick.
However, working on the assumption that the observer misidentified the blimp as something weirder, we can begin to wonder why it was mistaken for a saucer, instead of a floating Buddha, Emilia Earheart or a giant crucifix.
This wee problem, however, isn’t a patch on what an investigator has to deal with, i.e. point 3., when, months or years down the road, the observer, understandably nervous and embarrassed about divulging the details of their epiphany, may add ‘weight’ to the story, perhaps without even conscious meaning to. What they now remember is a not simply a glowing disk but a spaceship, with flashing lights and even aliens. The term for this is confabulation – the fabrication of imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.
The blimp story above is a speculative example, but the idea is worth bearing in mind. Just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true in some sense. Hell, if we want to drag quantum physics into it, the very act of perceiving a luminous blimp as a flying saucer may even affect the characteristics of the blimp, a long shot I know. But, as good old Niels Bohr put it, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
At this stage of my travels, despite having to suspect confabulation at ever corner in the murky world of forteana, there is something of the sympathiser about me. I’ve reached a stage where the ‘fiction’ of a paranormal experience is just as important as what ‘really’ happened. One is as important as the other, at least. Who am I to deny someone of their beliefs, their faith? If I think that someone is being heinously hoodwinked for monetary or power reasons, I feel compelled to speak up (can all those $cientologists really be happy?), but I’m generally disposed to leaving the faithful to their own devices. We don’t live in a rational world all the time, so there seems very little point in being reasonable all the time.
Capture This
Eventually, all of this memory versus ‘what really happened’ business started leaching into the more normal aspects of my daily life, vaguely in parallel with all of the paranormal musings. Having decided that my rather sketchy knowledge of photography was insufficient, I enrolled in a photography course. Unsurprisingly, this involved taking many pictures, most of which were drab and unappealing enough to never pass the contact sheet stage.
During the ten-week course, my camera was almost always with me. In a desperate attempt to realise some talent that I may or may not have, I was striving to document, to *capture* every fleeting image. I found that my technique improved, as did my understanding of light and cameras, and I began to approach all situations as photographic opportunities, often eagerly capitalising upon them. Being to able to walk down a street waving a camera in front of me was not only an invitation for speculative would-be-muggers, it was also a method of circumventing my own shy disposition, a way to exploit subjects, ripe for the bagging.
Long after I had finished the course, I was still lugging my camera around, and I realised that I expended more energy *capturing* events than actually *experiencing* them. I began to feel akin to the herds of primary-colour-clad herd tourists, armed with camcorders, like some form of voyeuristic proboscis extending from their eye sockets. The kind of creature that spends their entire holiday *recording* their holiday at the expense of actually having a holiday.
I stopped taking photographs. Most of the time.
During August 1999, I was travelling in northern Turkey, to get myself into the path of the solar eclipse. For a day or so, my friends and I chilled out in the tiny Black Sea village of Amasra, a beautiful labyrinth of alleyways between mosques and Ottoman houses, perched on a precarious coastal promontory.
One morning, while exploring the trinket shops, two of us stumbled across a semi-covered village market. It was just off a street we had walked down dozens of times, but somehow we had missed the dark, tin-roofed shed, where dozens of tanned and wizened women in patterned skirts and headscarves were squatting, peddling their home grown courgettes, chilies, tomatoes and olives.
I stood there gaping, a cultural alien from another continent. There was something about magnificent about the moment, the scene, the manifestation – it was literally *momentous*, animated still, like a flicker of recalled dream. I was caught in the moment, the composition of the sunlight, the intense morning heat, the bustling noise and the weird un-sea-like air of the Black Sea, which mingled with the scent of my own sweat, the buckets of feta and olives and the olfactory soup of fresh fruit and vegetables.
There was not a thing quaint, or even annoyingly touristic about the situation. I felt invisible, the Turkish babooshkas didn’t pay us a bit of notice. Amasra isn’t on any tourist trails, more of a quiet seaside resort for people living inland, so perhaps we seemed as ‘other’ as the families who roared in their crammed automobiles.
My camera bag was on my shoulder, and without thinking, I reached for my 35mm SLR, determined to capture the moment of epiphany. The zip was half-undone when I paused, and slowly let the bag swing back. Instead of savouring the scene, I had reflexively raced to capture it, in fear of losing the fleeting moment. I stood in quandary, hands itching for camera bag, eyes feasting on the chaos around me. At the far side of the market, my friend had her tiny Canon Ixus (a.k.a. Canon Imp) out and was discreetly shooting the scene, and no one noticed. A middle ground.
As I watched her, I realised that if I had pulled my big Minolta from the bag, immediate attention would have been elicited sellers in the market. Matters moved to confirm this theory, as after a few exposures, the old women began clustering together and posing, unasked, for the little Canon.
I was happy with my decision – I still feel that if I had my produced my camera, the scene I was so eager to capture would have vaporised. I would no longer have been able to take lofty pseudo-objective stance of the unseen eye, instead I would have been photographing a contrivance, a fake, an approximation of the scene that had initially inspired.
It was only six months later – the middle of January, that I saw these photographs of the market. They are beautiful pictures – but they’re not quite what I remember.
Memories are Meant to Fade
‘Memories are meant to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason.’
– Mace, in *Strange Days*

Like the replicants in Ridley Scott’s movie *Bladerunner* or the newly-created Mr. John Furriskey in Flann O’Brien’s novel *At Swim-Two-Birds*, who ‘entered the world with a memory but without personal experience to account for it,’ our memories serve to mould our personalities and reinforce our individualities. The experiences we carry around with us are meticulously, fluidly and irrationally recorded, and haphazardly *edited* by our memory. A recollection that embarrassed us five years ago may be the source of humour and gentle reminiscence today, just as an experience that was the source of pride may today be meaningless in our minds, if surpassed by a more important event.
So what is the point of all this vaguely mnemonic rattling? Does there need to be one? I could finish off by lecturing on how we should learn to enjoy memory for what it is. Or I could point out that this article was constructed from ideas and thoughts that I had to drag from my … memory. I could be mad, amnesiac, a liar, and a thief of other people’s ideas – I really don’t remember.
Originally published by SIGNUM

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.