Cryptomnesia makes us accidental plagiarists

Illustration for article titled Cryptomnesia makes us accidental plagiarists

We know that people make up false memories if prompted. But since our brain never stops being a jerk, we can also convert real memories into things we believe we imagined. Cryptomnesia can strike via our own memories, or our memories of things that others tell us. One of the most famous cases of cryptomnesia destroyed the fantasy-writing career of Helen Keller.

Have you ever told people a joke that you're sure that you made up - only to have someone point to a magazine or website where it was already published? It happens to a lot of people. Their mind registers a phrase or an event and keeps it around, but the provenance of the event is lost. After a sufficient amount of time, the event pops up in their brain, and they assume they made it up.


One of the most sensational cases of this, which made its way through the media and the courts, involving no less a beloved figure than Helen Keller. Keller, blind and deaf since early childhood, relied on her memory to get her through school, and through life. When she was eleven, after she'd been working with Anne Sullivan for only a few years, she carefully wrote a story called The Frost King. Intended as a present for Michael Anagnos, the head of a school for the blind, it was published in his almuni magazine, and then picked up by local papers. Helen Keller's story was already well-known, so this remarkably precocious fantasy tale got a wider and wider circulation, until someone noticed something odd. It was an almost exact retelling of another story, The Frost Fairies, by Margaret Canby. Accusations of plagiarism started flying, and reporters combed through Helen's history for evidence that she had read that book. It was finally discovered at the home of a friend of the Keller family, who acknowledged that she had read the book to Helen while Anne Sullivan was on vacation. While Helen had her defenders, the specter of plagiarism was never entirely dispelled. Helen Keller wrote, much later in life, that the event scared her so much that she never again dared write any fiction.

Helen's most famous defender was the famously cynical Mark Twain, who claimed that similar things had happened to him throughout his writing career. He was probably right. Cryptomnesia - the misattribution of memories - is a fairly easy trap to fall into. According to the The British Journal of Psychiatry, we experience partial cryptomnesia all the time. We remember things, but don't remember where we learned them. So we may recommend a book to the person who recommended it to us, or tell a new piece of gossip to the person who first told us about it. We remember learning something, but not where we learned it.

Illustration for article titled Cryptomnesia makes us accidental plagiarists

Total cryptomnesia is a little more challenging to induce - but still hardly rare. As we see in multiple science experiments about the subject, scientists know exactly how to bring it about. Groups of people are generally put in a room and all the group members are asked to participate in the same task. They are to take turns doing simple tasks, like listing the names of mammals or solving word puzzles. Each person in the group is asked listen to the others' answers as they play, and to contribute some of their own answers. After the group session is over, each member is asked to continue the game, either by coming up with still more names, or by recalling what their personal answers were. Cryptomnesia ensues. People, thinking they are coming up with still more answers, will list the answers of their teammates. They'll remember others' answers as their own. Everyone remembers what happens, but no one quite remembers whose idea was whose.


The "plagiarism" in these situations is quite understandable. Long, meaningless lists don't give the brain much individual detail to get a hold on. Still, the people who are listing other people's answers do truly believe that they came up with the solutions themselves. And the experiments lasted only a few minutes. Over years of reading, who knows what we absorb, forget, and begin to imagine as our own? Almost all studies mention literary or scientific cryptomnesia cases. While some plagiarism is certainly deliberate, many people simply to do it by accident. Most are lucky enough to utilize only vague themes or eerily familiar characters. Those who have a relatively good memory, like Helen Keller, have it harder. A good memory, especially a good verbal memory, is not guarantee against cryptomnesia. People still undergo cryptomnesia, but instead of being vague, they often repeat whole phrases and passages, believing the words to be their own.

Have you ever thought you made something up, or dreamed it, only to have someone tell you it really happened? Let us know.


Via The British Journal of Psychiatry, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning and Cognition, Helen Keller: A Life.


Image: Saurabh R. Patil

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It's one fear about writing...that you'll unintentionally steal ideas from something you've read in the past but do not recall. Of course, 99.999% of all ideas have already been done, and you are simply putting the different legos into the same objects.