Have you ever known someone who thought that they had just come up with the most brilliant idea only to be stunned later when they found out that it had already been discovered or said or done? And after you tell the person that the idea is not original, they insist that they came up with it on their own? Well I always wondered how is this possible. I was happy to discover there is a word for this condition: cryptomnesia, or subconscious plagiarism.
Crytomnesia happened to some pretty famous people:
1. Helen Keller wrote The Frost King believing that she came up with the story idea on her own, but later finding out that she heard the story four years earlier. She was mortified and for the rest of her life did not write fiction again.
2. Robert Louis Stevenson discovered years after writing Treasure Island that many of his ideas were taken from Washington Irving. He said “It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.“
3. In 1976 the Beatles George Harrison was found guilty in a court of law of unconsciously copying the music for his song, My Sweet Lord.
4. Angelina Jolie was accused of plagiarism for her movie In the land of Blood and Honey.
As you can see, it is still going on today. I think that this is the most interesting part – how can our brains not know? How can the brain not remember a past memory and think it is a new idea? I think it has a lot to do with the social environment and learning. Our brains are sponges. We take in information from many sources. We keep the content in our minds, but not necessarily the source. The source of the knowledge is not given as much importance as the content. Then when we are asked to write a paper or a book or a song, we recall ideas that are somewhere in the recessed of our minds that may not have been used for many years and sincerely believe that we have come up with an original thought. As young children, we learn from others, we mimic others. Children will use words and phrases that older siblings and relatives use, sincerely believing that it is their own. Another way to explain it is this quote from Dr. Marsh from the University of Georgia who has been doing studies on Cryptomnesia: “There’s a classic phenomenon in clinical psychology, where a therapist will be trying to get a client to believe something about their behavior, and the client is often resistant at first,” he explains. “Then, the client comes in one day with an ‘insight.’ They’re often not really insights at all–they’re just expressions of what the therapist has been saying all along.” The idea just took a while to sink into the brain.
Writers, musicians, and playwrights have read so many things and listened to so much music that all of it churns around in the brain and when an idea comes to mind, the person does sincerely believe it is original because they cannot link it back to when they heard or read it before. So what can be done about cryptomensia? Here is a great quote from Russ Juskalian’s article in Newsweek “We may plagiarize without knowing it, but we can guard against the risk with a little conscious effort. Taking diligent notes, reminding oneself to remember not just a good idea, but also its source, or simply pondering whether the clever phrase that popped into one’s head is original, helps fend off cryptomnesia. Over the course of his research, Marsh has found that cryptomnesia is greatly reduced with subtle social pressure: if you are asked to come up with solutions to a problem in a group setting, and then quizzed on your contributions to the discussion afterward, you might unconsciously steal from fellow group members if the quiz takes place in private—but not if it takes place in front of the original group.”