This is how it feels to learn your memories are fiction

A few months after his brain surgery, Matthew returned to work as a computer programmer. He knew it was going to be a challenge - he had to explain to his boss that he was living with a permanent brain injury.

"What actually happened at the meeting was that the employers said, 'How can we help you, how can we make you fit back into work and get back on your feet again?'" Matthew explains. "That's what they said. But my recollection the next day was that they were going to fire me - there was no way they could allow me back into work."

The memory was very vivid - he says - just as believable as anything that had actually happened. Yet it was completely false. Today, Matthew knows it was one of the first signs that he was suffering from "confabulation" as a result of his brain injury. Confabulators don't mean to lie or mislead, but some fundamental problems with the way they process memories mean they often struggle to tell fact from a fiction concocted by their unconscious mind.

The discovery was another painful blow to Matthew (whose name has been changed to preserve his privacy). "I was really scared - I thought I can't trust what's actually happened."

His dilemma, although extreme, can help us all to understand the frailties of our memories, and the ways our minds construct their own versions of reality.

Today, Matthew volunteers at Headway East London, a charity that supports people with brain injury. I first came across him when he gave a talk at the Wellcome Collection in London, and keen to know more, I later interviewed him about his experiences.

He is quietly spoken and conscientious as he talks about his past, often turning to confirm details with his colleague Ben Graham, who he has known for most of the 10 years since his operation.

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