Cryptomnesia

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” ~Voltaire

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” ~W.H. Auden

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” ~Samuel Johnson

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Cryptomnesia, also referred to as unconscious or inadvertent plagiarism, describes a situation in which an individual recalls information stored in memory but believes this information to be an original idea or creation. For instance, a person might write a poem believing that the clever verses are his own, only to find out later that segments of his poem are identical to lines written by a famous poet. In this case, the individual is not intentionally trying to pass off another person’s work as his own; rather, he simply did not realize that his product was unoriginal. This memory error can generally be explained in one of two ways: (1) either the idea itself was experienced as unfamiliar when it was recalled, and therefore it was deemed to be “new” and thus original; or (2) the idea was experienced as familiar when it was recalled, but the source of the idea was misattributed (e.g. five musicians collectively brainstorm names for their new band, and, later, both the bassist and the drummer insist that the chosen name had been one of his own contributions to the master list).

In its extreme, unconscious plagiarism is presumably much rarer than the intentional kind, but there have been a few famous cases of cryptomnesia. Helen Keller, at age eleven, wrote a story for children entitled “The Frost King” that turned out to be almost identical to “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby, a children’s author of her time. A piece in the New Yorker about Keller’s life noted, “Margaret Canby’s tale had been spelled to Helen perhaps three years before, and lay dormant in her prodigiously retentive memory; she was entirely oblivious of reproducing phrases not her own” (you can read the full article here).  The accusations of plagiarism, however, were startling for Keller and haunted her for much of her life, which included future allegations of creative inauthenticity. Another famous case of cryptomnesia involved singer George Harrison, who was sued for having plagiarized parts of “He’s So Fine” by Ronald Mack in the composition of his song, “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison claimed the offense was ‘subconscious’ plagiarism; he admitted having heard “He’s So Fine” before, but he insisted that he had not intentionally stolen the melodies.

There has been a good amount of psychological research on the topic of cryptomnesia, and, more broadly, on the subject of source monitoring errors in memory. While I was searching for information online, I came across a recent Newsweek article on cryptomnesia and journalism that summarizes a few such studies nicely, so it’s worth checking out: http://www.newsweek.com/id/205560.

There’s one stubborn “Yes, but…” that arises in any discussion of cryptomnesia, though: despite the evidence that unconscious plagiarism can and does sometimes occur, how can you ever really know for sure that a person’s actions were unintentional? How do you separate the liars from the honest cases of source misattribution? In Harrison’s case, it didn’t matter; the judge decided that, even if the plagiarism was ‘subconscious,’ it was still plagiarism, and Harrison was held accountable for the infringement.

For writers and artists, the concept of cryptomnesia raises interesting questions about the many factors that influence our creative processes outside of conscious awareness. To what extent are my short stories my own, and to what extent are they really just amalgamations of all of the short stories that I’ve ever read? To what extent are my characters really personalities of my own creation, rather than derivatives of my favorite protagonists and villains? Can we ever really be truly “original” in our painting, our designing, our writing? Does inspiration come from within, without, or a combination of the two?

 

Our experiences shape us in more ways than we are aware. I guess that’s why I’ve always said that originality is really nothing more than careful imitation. Writers shouldn’t aim to be original–they should aim to be authentic. It’s just a sad truth that, if piece of writing is both good and original, the good parts usually aren’t original, and the original parts, well…

Huh, that’s strange. Did anyone else just experience déjà-vu?

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