The man with the made-up memories
The last thing Alpha Kabeja remembered seeing was a van, cream colored with a red stripe on its side.
It was late afternoon on a rainy and mild New Year’s Day 2012, and he was cycling down a street in North London. Kabeja, then 29 years old, was on his way to visit his girlfriend. He’d celebrated the New Year the night before at a house party without her and was feeling guilty. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Kabeja was found in a crumpled heap beside his crushed bike. The van was gone. There were no serious visible injuries on his body, but a CT scan at nearby University College London Hospital revealed a subdural hemorrhage and midline shift — he’d been hit so hard that his brain, now bleeding, actually moved in his skull, portions of it passing over the midline to the other side. He spent three weeks in a medically induced coma, during which surgeons removed a portion of his skull to relieve swelling.
When he woke, doctors told his family he might not remember anything from before the accident, or remember them or who he was, that he might have amnesia. But Kabeja did remember. He remembered a lot.
He remembered that he was going to see his girlfriend, that she was pregnant with their twins. He remembered tucking the picture of the ultrasound in the pages of his notebook, one he used to write down song ideas and thoughts; he repeatedly asked the nurses in the hospital if they’d seen the notebook. He remembered the names they’d picked out for the boy and girl — Sky and Nikita. He also remembered that the day of the accident, he was cycling to his girlfriend’s flat from a job interview — assistant to the director of operations at MI6, working with a man called Michael Mitchells. He thought the interview had gone very well. And he remembered that he owned a small private plane.
“The memories felt real, but I didn’t understand them, in a way, actually. I didn’t quite understand them,” he said later. There was a lot that was confusing in the immediate aftermath of Kabeja’s accident; though his long-term memory was intact, his short-term was in tatters. He spent a year in two hospitals, underwent three brain surgeries, including a partial frontal lobectomy. He has a metal plate in his skull, under a deep dent of a scar on his right temple. He speaks carefully and thoughtfully, with long pauses, but is easygoing and he smiles often — too often, he says, an involuntary action. And when he talks about the memories, these crystal-clear, actual memories of non-actual events, he’s almost sheepish, and he laughs easily.
Kabeja says that he believed in the literal truth of his memories for six months after the accident. It was only when he called the offices of MI6 and told them he’d had an interview there on the first of January that he began to doubt — the person he spoke with told him that the offices weren’t open that day. He murmured a “thank you,” hung up the phone, and opened his laptop.
Doctors tend to call Kabeja’s memories “confabulated,” while psychologists stick to “fictional,” “fabricated,” or “false.” He believed his memories because they were, to his mind, real; they felt real, indistinguishable from the other memories he knew to be demonstrably accurate. The made-up memories are in one sense, extreme — it took a traumatic brain injury and a series of medical procedures to conjure up a pregnant girlfriend, a plane, and a job at MI6. But in another sense, what Kabeja’s brain did is no different than how we make memory all the time.
We tend to think of memory as much more accurate than it is. According to a 2011 study into Americans’ understanding about the brain, 63 percent believed that memory works like a video camera, recording moments to play back later in our mental cinema. Nearly half believe that memory is permanent, that once you’ve experienced an event and created a memory of it, that memory does not change in quality. But science, psychology, even our daily experience tell us that this is wrong.
“This whole idea that memory is somehow some kind of literal record of the past is very heavily embedded in our cultural thinking, in our society, and it’s completely wrong,” said Martin Conway, head of the department of psychology at City University in London and an expert on confabulated, fictional memories like Kabeja’s. Kabeja’s case was fairly mild in that it was isolated to these ideas and that he no longer believes that these memories correspond to actual circumstances, but it is similar to what Conway has seen in his work. “Cases of confabulation and cases of brain damage as well have been quite instrumental in shifting our thinking in autobiographical memory. . . . What it shows you, basically, is that memories are constructions. They’re mental constructions — they’re not like books on a shelf in a library, they’re not like videos, they’re not like tape recordings,” he said.
The phrase “making memories” is more accurate than we may realize. “Memory in general but especially autobiographical memory is a flexible, constructive, reconstructive process,” explained Julia Shaw, a memory scientist at the department of law and social sciences at London South Bank University and author of “The Memory Illusion.” In her own research, she has had significant success in implanting false memories in subjects about complex emotional events: In a study published in January of 2015 in Psychological Science, she and her coauthor demonstrated that 70 percent of their subjects came to not only falsely believe they’d committed a serious crime in their adolescence but could also offer up detailed recollections of this crime; all of this solely on the basis of three interviews employing suggestive memory retrieval techniques.
“When we talk about a memory of something that happened, what we’re talking about is a network of neurons in the brain, all of which represent different aspects of that memory: What we heard during that event, what we saw during that event, who was there, what we felt. And so all those different things are stored in different parts of the brain, and what the brain does is it makes this network that we can later on, hopefully, access,” she explained. A memory is a compressed, edited, and sometimes embellished version of an event, bolstered by the network of connections it makes in our brains; memories that don’t stick with us are ones that have fewer network connections. Later, when we retrieve the memory, the editing process continues as we shape the memory into a coherent story and form new network connections that serve new purposes. Its “realness” as a memory isn’t a function of it corresponding to actual events as they occurred, but rather in what it means to the memory maker.
But this network is not always reliable: “What can also happen with these autobiographical memories is that network can become distorted,” Shaw says. What Kabeja’s brain did was a distortion of this network on a greater scale than usual, reconfiguring connections in ways that made a perfectly usable memory nevertheless not based in literal truth. Kabeja’s psychologist during his rehabilitation suggested that his brain was confronted with a confusing gap in time during his coma, time that he filled with confabulated memory. Because of his brain trauma, the networks of connected neurons that made up his memory were physically disrupted. “When you wake up, your brain is trying to reconnect pieces because your brain is trying to recover that sense of you, that sense of memory, that sense of history, and in that process of recovery and essentially healing, you can make connections in ways that are fantastical and impossible,” Shaw said.
In fact, uninjured brains do it all the time on a far smaller scale: For example, you may have a very clear memory of leaving your keys on table by the door, only to find them where you actually left them on the dresser upstairs.
Kabeja thinks of his fictional memories as springing from his subconscious, where he says the seeds of these memories lived. A number of his friends and colleagues were having children, twins, he said, run in his family, and of course, he did have a girlfriend; he did once apply for a position at MI6, years before the accident; and he had recently seen a film that featured the plane he remembered owning. Leaving aside the question of whether the subconscious is a useful psychological concept, the building blocks of Kabeja’s fictional memories were certainly somewhere in his head. “Generally, when we confabulate or create false memories, we take pieces of things that we’ve seen or heard or done and we reconnect them,” Shaw said. “The most likely kinds of false memories we’re going to have are things that in some ways, we’ve essentially experienced,” even if that experience is only through thinking or visualizing. The reconnecting of these things into a story or narrative is not unlike what happens when we dream, although Kabeja is clear that his memories are real, albeit nonbelieved, memories and not the memories of a dream.
That Kabeja’s memories were so specific also indicates that memory serves a more important purpose than simply recording, something we perhaps intuitively know.
“The memories you have sort of define yourself, they constrain the universe of selves you can be . . . in certain disorders, that constraining influence of memory is broken. It’s as though the memory no longer carries the sort of personal, evidential weight that it had before,” explained Conway.
Notably, Kabeja didn’t challenge his memories for six months, despite growing evidence such as the nonappearance of the twins and the lack of a plane that something was wrong (his family and friends didn’t either, which Kabeja laughs about now: “They were not questioning, they were just letting me go along with it!”). These memories had real emotional weight and even now, when he thinks about the job or the twins, he gets butterflies in his stomach, he’s excited about them.
Kabeja’s memories show that what we choose to remember, how we remake a memory to fit our needs and desires, some of them nonconscious, is about how we tell ourselves the narrative of our own lives. “Memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller. . . . Confabulation reminds us how the force of coherence can win over the force of correspondence, leading individuals to weave stories that fit their own reality better than they fit the reality out there,” wrote professor Charles Fernyhough of Durham University in his meditation on memory, “Pieces of Light.”
It’s an important idea, and Conway goes a bit further: “Memory isn’t there to accurately represent the past, it’s there to allow you to have a self that is operating in the present, and to allow you to have a future,” he explained.
But if our memories aren’t reliable, what does that imply for our sense of self? Who is Kabeja now, if some of the things that he remembers are wrong? “Memory makes us who we are, especially when we’re talking about autobiographical memories. We are the sum of experiences, I think. To the point that — and obviously, I’m a memory scientist, so I would say this — memory is reality. The only way you can even perceive time or who you are is having a notion of what you’ve been and the decisions you’ve made,” said Shaw.
Alpha Kabeja is a different person from the one he was before the accident — he likes to think of himself as “Alpha 2.0.”
Today, Kabeja lives by himself in a flat in northeast London, decorated with paintings and souvenirs from his travels: Before the accident, he spent two years on a merchant cargo ship and several years as a pastry chef, and graduated Birkbeck College with a degree in biological anthropology. There’s a ukulele and two guitars that Kabeja can no longer play, owing to a persistent weakness in his left side from the accident. There are a few piles of books — “Greek Philosophy,” “Linguistic Behavior,” George Herbert Mead’s books on the nature of self — movies, and the board game Cranium. He has been unable to work since the accident because he is too easily distracted.
Kabeja is the kind of guy who, when he had to wear a blue surgical helmet between having part of his skull removed and the metal plate inserted, decorated it with the letters “UN” and a picture of a tank because he thought it was funny. He spends every Wednesday at Headway East London, a charity devoted to raising the profile of brain injuries, and for which he participates in talks about his experience. He is training for the 2020 Paralympic sailing team, a sport he took up after his accident. He’s writing a book about his life and still plays the harmonica. And he can laugh about his fictional memories now, like the time when he was still in the hospital and he took his friends down to the parking lot to look for his plane. He appreciates his memories, even if they aren’t strictly real.
“The way I feel about them is that it was my subconscious helping me to get better. I was working a lot harder, I was exercising more, always on the exercise bicycle. . . getting my left side stronger. Because I was thinking, ‘If I am going to be having twins, I have to be strong enough to run after them,’ ” he said, laughing.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.