Cryptomnesia: An Innocent Cause of Plagiarism
Mon, April 19, 2021

Cryptomnesia: An Innocent Cause of Plagiarism

Cryptomnesia, a phenomenon in which a forgotten memory returns without being recognized as a memory, is a fairly easy trap to fall into / Photo by: David Tiberio via 123RF

 

In a world flooded with information, cryptomnesia is something all of us could be guilty of. One of the most sensational cases of this involved Helen Keller, a deaf-blind author, political activist, and lecturer. Despite being blind and deaf since her childhood, she managed to write a story titled “The Frost King.” During those days, she only relied on her memory to get through life.

Keller’s story was dedicated to Michael Anagnos, the head of a school for the blind. With the help of Anne Sullivan, her instructor and lifelong companion, her story was published in their alumni magazine and eventually in the local papers. “The Frost King” immediately attracted attention and received positive comments, not until some people noticed something odd. The story was an almost exact retelling of another story, “The Frost Fairies,” written by author Margaret Canby. 

As a result, Keller was inundated with allegations of plagiarism. Although there had been a lot of people who defended her, the specter of plagiarism was never entirely dispelled. According to Gizmodo, an online site that focuses on the subjects of science fiction, fantasy, futurism, science, technology, and related areas, Keller wrote that what happened scared her so much that she never again dared write any fiction. 

“I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book,” Keller said. Later, it was discovered that a friend of the Keller family had read Canby’s book to her. 

Cryptomnesia, a phenomenon in which a forgotten memory returns without being recognized as a memory, is a fairly easy trap to fall into. The British Journal of Psychiatry stated that people experience partial cryptomnesia all the time. For instance, we tell a new piece of gossip to the person who first told us about it or recommend a book to the person who recommended it to us. Basically, it’s remembering that learned something, but not where we learned it. 

The Accidental Plagiarist in You

The concept of cryptomnesia isn’t new. It was first used by psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy to explain the case of medium Hélène Smith. He coined the word to suggest the high incidence in psychism of “latent memories on the part of the medium that come out, sometimes greatly disfigured by a subliminal work of imagination or reasoning, as so often happens in our ordinary dreams.” In the first empirical study of cryptomnesia, it was shown that participants inadvertently plagiarized about 3 to 9 percent of the time either in two ways: falsely recalling someone’s thoughts as their own or regenerating another person’s thought. 

Psychologists believe that cryptomnesia might be a result of an efficient memory system since plagiarizers fail to register the source of information, known as a source-monitoring error / Photo by: Aleksandr Davydov via 123RF

 

According to Psynso.com, an open-access psychology resource and news blog, disseminating and communicating knowledge and impactful discoveries in the field of psychology, there are two kinds of cryptomnesia. First is when a plagiarizer believes the idea to be an original creation but was actually an idea presented to them earlier. The second one is when they correctly recognize that the idea is from an earlier time, but falsely remembers having been the origin for the idea. This is a result of an error of authorship whereby the ideas of others are remembered as one’s own.

Psychologists believe that cryptomnesia might be a result of an efficient memory system since plagiarizers fail to register the source of information, known as a source-monitoring error. This is because our brain tends to filter information as we amass memories. The origins of facts usually fall secondary to the facts themselves. According to Qarago, an education center that provides good information and articles, cryptomnesia can be understood as the opposite of what is experienced during a déjà vu. This means that there is a real memory of the ideas that most of the time goes unnoticed until it returns to manifest itself as a new experience.

Research About Cryptomnesia

Plagiarism has been widely seen as a strict liability offense. Most of the time, plagiarizers are held responsible regardless of their intent. While the reason for plagiarizing due to a faulty memory rather than negligence or malice can be acceptable, some people use this as a reason to escape the consequences of plagiarism. Some experts have also been questioning whether or not cryptomnesia is real or not. 

But several studies showed that cryptomnesia is not only real but also easy to induce. A 1989 study by Dr. Alan S. Brown, a Southern Methodist University psychologist, showed that more than 40 percent of the students repeated something that someone else had said without realizing it. According to Curiosity, an online education website, the written experiment in the study was worse. The researchers revealed that 75 percent of the participants have written down another person’s example while 70 percent have written down someone else's example as a new example they came up with.

The findings of the study showed that plagiarizing in writing is more likely to happen than in speech. In the book “The Psychology of Writing,” author Ronald T. Kellogg said, "...writers may be especially susceptible to borrowing unknowingly ideas they have gained through lectures, discussions, and other forms of aural input...Ideas that are expressed frequently—that are ‘in the air’—are especially open to borrowing."

Indeed, cryptomnesia is a real phenomenon that has been tracked in many replicated, peer-reviewed scientific studies. However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for writers or any people to justify plagiarism. While it showed that flaws in our memory can make us do something unconsciously, it doesn’t excuse the fact that we have written something that’s not ours. Cryptomnesia has great impacts on understanding how our brains work, but fewer effects on the realm of plagiarism.

Plagiarism has been widely seen as a strict liability offense. Most of the time, plagiarizers are held responsible regardless of their intent / Photo by: Aleksandr Davydov via 123RF