Hirstein, William

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Hirstein, William




Office—Department of Philosophy, Elmhurst College, 190 Prospect Ave., Box 113, Elmhurst, IL 60126. E-mail—[email protected]


Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL, professor of philosophy and chair of department.


On Searle, Thomson/Wadsworth (Belmont, CA), 2001.

On the Churchlands, Thomson/Wadsworth (Belmont, CA), 2004.

Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.

Contributor to books, including Cognitive Science: An Introduction to Mind and Brain, Routledge, 2006. Contributor to journals, including the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Philosophy of Science, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, and Brain.


While he is a professor of philosophy, William Hirstein is also very interested in cognitive science. As he told an American Scientist interviewer: "I have unintentionally positioned myself somewhere between psychology, philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, which I suppose makes me a cognitive scientist. I think members of each discipline suspect I am actually a spy for one of the others, and there is a certain amount of truth to that. I approach traditional philosophical questions about knowledge, doubt, consciousness and representation using simple scientific techniques: construct hypotheses and try to knock them down, using data from any discipline, or any source, including introspection."

Hirstein's Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation is about confabulation, "a phenomenon in which individuals create false answers to probe questions that would otherwise result in a response such as ‘I don't know’ or a true-to-fact answer," as Bailey C. Wilkes explained the illness in the Journal of Medical Speech—Language Pathology. Confabulation can occur with people who suffer from a variety of diseases, including Korsakoff's syndrome, Anton's syndrome, Capgras's syndrome, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and split-brain syndrome. Hirstein details the symptoms of confabulation, explaining the two types of provoked and spontaneous confabulation. Wilkes further explained that "spontaneous confabulation likely reflects the expression of delusional thoughts experienced by the confabulator. Provoked confabulation, observed when the patient is confronted with a question, potentially reflects a deficit in inhibition."

Hirstein then speculates on the possible causes of confabulation, which typically seems to involve some sort of brain damage. Neil Levy reported in a Metapsychology review: "Hirstein advances a two-stage explanation of confabulation. He suggests that normal brains have separate modules (my term, not his; no implications about encapsulation are intended) for the generation of explanatory hypotheses and for checking these hypotheses for consistency and plausibility. Confabulation occurs when both modules are damaged. In that case, wild hypotheses are produced by the generation module, and are allowed to pass (or go unexamined) by the checking module. When the damage to one or the other module (or both; Hirstein is far from clear on this point) is domain-specific, we get confabulation restricted to a certain topic. We get, for instance, the patient who remains globally rational, but denies that her left arm is paralyzed. When the damage is more widespread, the confabulation spreads across more domains." By understanding confabulation, Hirstein also believes that scientists will also understand better how the brain works in general.

Later, Hirstein also discusses diseases he believes to be similar to confabulation. "The discussion of other phenomena, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and mind reading, may surprise readers," remarked Wilkes, "yet Hirstein provides compelling arguments for including these concepts in the exploration of confabulation syndromes." Wilkes concluded that Brain Fiction is "a fascinating examination of confabulation syndromes from the perspectives of neurology, psychology, and philosophy."



American Journal of Psychiatry, 2006, Johannes Pantel, review of Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation.

American Scientist, July 1, 2005, "Spin Central," p. 367.

Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 22, number 2, 2006, Jeffrey Anastasi, review of Brain Fiction, pp. 277-78.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, July 1, 2005, S.A. Huettel, review of Brain Fiction, p. 2021.

Journal of Medical Speech—Language Pathology, March, 2007, Bailey C. Wilkes, review of Brain Fiction, p. 97.

Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, Volume 76, 2005, Akatarina Fotopoulou, review of Brain Fiction, p. 1042.

Metapsychology, March 9, 2005, Neil Levy, review of Brain Fiction; June 12, 2007, G.C. Gupta, review of Cognitive Science: An Introduction to Mind and Brain.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2003, review of On the Churchlands, p. 8.


American Scientist Online,http://www.americanscientist.org/ (February 26, 2008), "Scientists' Nightstand," interview with William Hirstein.

Elmhurst College Department of Philosophy Web site,http://wwww.elmhurst.edu/ (February 26, 2008), faculty profile of William Hirstein.

Metapsychology,http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/ (February 26, 2008), Neil Levy, review of Brain Fiction.