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What Is Cryptomnesia?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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Cryptomnesia is a psychological phenomenon in which a person mistakes a memory for a new, original idea. Psychiatrists and psychologists believe that most people experience cryptonmesia from time to time, but the extent of the phenomenon and how easily it can be controlled is somewhat controversial. It is commonly used to explain inadvertent plagarism and has been described as a theory of hidden memory or forgotten memory.

Basic tenets of the study of cryptomnesia include understanding how the brain stores and processes memories. Most people have a capacity to store and recall a vast array of details. Literary passages read, songs heard, designs viewed, and conversations held are among the many memories that people carry with them through life. Often times, these memories will come back to people at seemingly random times. Cryptomnesia occurs when people confuse these old memories for new thoughts.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of the first professionals to study cryptomnesia in any depth. Jung studied the phenomenon beginning in 1902 in a paper that sought a psychological explanation for the often accurate work of psychics. His studies expanded from there to an exploration of how stored memories may influence so-called original thoughts years or even decades after initial exposure. Jungian psychology contends that cryptomnesia is a normal part of most memory processes.

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Psychiatrists have long studied human memories, and not all agree with Jung’s hypotheses. One thing that is almost unanimously agreed to, however, is that the human capacity for remembering specific memories is far greater than the ability to remember those memories’ sources. Most of the disputes surrounding cryptomnesia concern how it is applied and whether or not it can serve as an excuse for copying another's work.

Cryptomnesia usually happens in isolation, with respect to but a single memory. That the phenomenon exists is not as disputed as how often it is diagnosed and applied to situations that otherwise look a lot like plagiarism. The thought that certain sources could be selectively omitted from recollection, particularly when the forgetting is advantageous to the person concerned, remains controversial.

Plagiarism, or the presentation of another’s work as one’s own, is often considered a form of fraud. Regardless of how plagiarism is punished, it is frowned upon almost universally. Many accused plagiarists fall back on cryptomnesia as a means of explaining what they call “automatic writing,” a form of inadvertent copying.

A defense that relies on cryptomnesia depends on two facts. First, the plagiarist once read, heard, or saw the original work. Second, he or she recalled some passage or portion of that work unconsciously, without attributing a source to it. The plagiarist then assumed that the thought was original and put it forth as such to the public.

Cryptomnesia may be able to explain plagiarism, but it does not usually absolve the accused of guilt. In most cases, plagiarism occurs whether it not it was intentional. For this reason, writers, singers, and creators of all kinds are encouraged to research their so-called original thoughts before publishing them.

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