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I keep hearing the same thing from analysts – the objective ones at least: “I don’t understand how this person can say what they’re saying.” There isn’t a parent around who hasn’t uttered pretty much the same words. Especially the parent of a teen. But if there’s one big thing that Self-Reg teaches us, it’s to pay attention to how our kid is talking and not just what they’re saying. If ever there was a time to apply this maxim to the world around us, it’s now.

What Gives it Away?

Listen carefully to the speech of those echoing the words of far-right pundits. You’ll hear fear and anger, of course, but then that’s true of just about everybody these days. They speak a little too loud or a little too fast. Their pitch goes up. When pressed they exhibit irritability, agitation, and confusion. And revert to talking points.

Why? Why Now?

In the same way that Self-Reg teaches us to do with our kids, we need to be asking Why. We have inherited a view that goes all the way back to the 17th century that when someone tells us what they think, they are speaking from a position of authority. If there’s one thing that they know, it’s what’s on their mind. They’re on a first-name basis with their reasons for thinking about what they do.

So, we naturally assume that we need to get them to open their eyes. See the potential harm in what they’re saying – harm to themselves as well as to us as. Get them to realize how they have been misinformed or deliberately misled. We need them to see the light of reason.

How well has that strategy worked with your teen? How well is it working in the political arena?

Pause, Ponder & Process

In order to get someone to think about what they’re saying, they have to be in a state where they are able to pause, ponder, and process. Not just hit “repeat.”

When our kid is doing something incredibly stupid – and believe me, I am speaking from personal experience here – we instinctively think that if we can get them to just understand then they’ll stop. Explain to them why what they’re doing is so short-sighted. But Self-Reg counsels us to take a step back and ask Why.

Put on our Self-Reg deerstalker and we start looking for cues: in this case, the nonverbal kind. Invariably we will discover that anxiety is the culprit. Anxiety that is caused by homeostatic imbalances deep in the subcortex. Anxiety caused by the activation of FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, PAIN (1). Anxiety caused by excessive SEEKING and insufficient CARE and PLAY.

Susan and I are busy these days getting ready to record our new course Reframing Bullying, in which we explore the nature of the midbrain systems mentioned above. Not just how they affect our feelings, mood, thoughts, and self-awareness, but also, how they affect our speech.

We take it for granted that when someone tells us what they think, they are telling us the hard cold truth. But with our deerstalker firmly in place, we realize that there are all kinds of things we do when we say what we think or believe.

Sometimes we’re explaining. Sometimes clarifying. Justifying. Excusing. Defending. And a lot of times, confabulating.

The History of Confabulation

At the end of the 19th century, the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff identified confabulation (2) as “an extremely peculiar form of amnesia.” Neuroinflammation caused fugues that patients filled with “false memories.” The stories these patients told related to “unconscious memories” of earlier experiences, or to things they had read or heard. Unlike delusions or hallucinations, there was always some association that triggered the false memory.

In the past two decades, psychologists of reasoning have built on Korsakoff’s idea. They have shown how easy it is to manipulate someone’s decisions, and then prime them with “reasons” for their choice. The subjects sincerely believe what they are saying: not because – or not simply because — they are trying to protect their sense of autonomy, but because confabulation is a mode of self-regulation.

Confabulation and Self-Regulation

We tend to think of confabulation as simply making things up, maybe as an ego defence. But there is something deeper going on. People confabulate to relieve the stress they’re under. Confabulation is a mode of self-regulation. And in certain circumstances, a highly maladaptive one at that.

The irritability, agitation, and confusion that Korsakoff also reported were signs of the stress the patients were feeling as a result of their “peculiar form of amnesia.” We all know what that feels like. Something as common as not remembering where you left your keys is incredibly stressful, especially when you’re already late (which is why locating tags have become so popular).

Confabulation and Politics

So why has confabulation become so widespread in the current political environment? There are three primary causes:

  • Heightened stress-levels
  • The pervasiveness of maladaptive modes of self-regulation
  • A pronounced restoration deficit

Propaganda capitalizes on all three elements.

The reason why propaganda is so effective is because it exacerbates the anxiety that individuals are already feeling, and then offers them a way to make it stop. It was incredibly stressful to watch the attack on the United States Capitol play out on January 6th. Convincing oneself – or rather, allowing oneself to be convinced – that it was just a peaceful demonstration is a way to alleviate that stress.

Herein lies a major reason why those with a subversive political agenda can get others to follow them in rewriting the history of what they saw. The “re-storying” helps quell the stress they’re feeling about their personal safety, the safety of their children, about a society falling apart, a future filled with ominous threats. They grab on to the false stories in the same way that Korsakoff’s patients grabbed on to false memories.

Why We Need Self-Reg

Self-Reg teaches us another hugely important lesson. We can’t force someone to stop being anxious. And we certainly can’t combat their anxiety by piling on still more. Instead, we need to help them speak with us and not at us. Need them to experience the healing balm of calmness. To deal with reality rather than flee from it.

We need them to do Self-Reg.



P.S. If you are interested in learning more about confabulation please check out our Self-Reg Learning Facilitators Program or sign up for our new Applied Self-Reg course Reframing Bullying

(1) These are some of  Jaak Panksepp’s Primitive Emotion Circuits.  There are seven in total: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, GRIEF (formerly PANIC), and PLAY.  Panksepp, J. (2011). The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: do animals have affective lives?. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1791-1804.

Panksepp, J. (2011). The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: do animals have affective lives?. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1791-1804.

(2) For more information on the concept of confabulation read
Arts, N. J., Walvoort, S. J., & Kessels, R. P. (2017). Korsakoff’s syndrome: a critical review. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 2875-2890.

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