Cryptomnesia: Why Everyone’s At Risk of Unconsciously Plagiarizing

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Cryptomnesia: Why Everyone’s At Risk of Unconsciously Plagiarizing

writers are the most likely to fall victim to cryptomnesia/ Photo By gerasimov_foto_174 via Shutterstock


What people believe to be their own ideas, do not actually belong to them. These are actually a result of many types of existing ideas which they took in over the span of time they were alive, Brain Pickings says. The blending of existing portions of ideas and reassembling them into new combination is mostly an unconscious process. This process is known as cryptomnesia. There are repercussions to this process, however, because it usually eliminates the bits of the original sources that individuals unconsciously attribute as their new and original ideas.  

Cryptomnesia is defined by Collins Dictionary as “the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken as a new experience.” Psychologists at the Southern Methodist University, Dana Murphy and Alan Brown, first introduced the concept in 1989 when their study was published.

The Cryptomnesia Experiment

Before the 1960s, cryptomnesia was used as a term which pertains to the hidden memories which could be remembered while a person was subject to hypnosis. During the 1960s, its meaning shifted and became a term that pertained to old memories a person remembers consciously but considers as new thoughts.

Brown and Murphy carried out an experiment that involved 4 groups of students. They instructed each of the participants of every group to give examples for each category they provide. Some of the categories which were included were musical instruments, sports, animals, and types of clothes. They told the participants that they all had to give original examples and were not permitted to repeat an example which was already mentioned. The participants were all seated beside each other and came forward. For every two turns, they had to provide an example, then after three more categories, they would change their seating arrangement.

In the latter part of the experiment, the participants were directed to write down their own examples that they had thought of during the group activity and then write down four additional examples that the other participants have not said yet.

In the results of their study, it was shown that over 40% of students had unintentionally reiterated an answer another participant had said. Meanwhile, during the writing segment of the experiment, it was revealed that 75% of the subjects had written an example which had already been stated by other participants. It was also indicated that 70% of the participants had the same new examples. This research demonstrates that when a person hears something, they are more prone to plagiarize it through a written form than by their speech.

The Dangers of Cryptomnesia

Several celebrities have faced plagiarism charges because of cryptomnesia. For instance, George Harrison, the composer of Sweet Lord, stood trial in 1976 for his song which was accused of being an imitation of the song He’s So Fine by Ronnie Mack. Led Zeppelin was also charged in 2016 for plagiarizing the melodies he used in Stairway to Heaven, which was originally said to have come from a band he performed with before. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer was tried for self-plagiarism, which essentially is copying one’s previous content into their new work.

According to Ronald T. Kellog, a cognitive psychologist and the author of the 1994 volume of The Psychology of Writing, writers are the most likely to fall victim to cryptomnesia. This is due to the fact that writers often borrow from existing sources in a conscious way. The methods they use to borrow from these sources are using quotes, summations or expansions, showing different perspectives from the source writer and imitating the “stylistic voice” of other writers.

The same sentiment was expressed in William Faulkner's 1958 speech at a university when he said, “Any experience a writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.”

if anyone plants a false memory into an individual, this can severely twist their memories, making them even more vulnerable to subconscious plagiarism/ Photo By igorstevanovic via Shutterstock


With the concept that every idea is borrowed and that there is “nothing new under the sun”, it is quite amazing that people are actually able to brainstorm for new ideas. Also, because a human’s memory is not that reliable, if anyone plants a false memory into an individual, this can severely twist their memories, making them even more vulnerable to subconscious plagiarism.  

Cryptomnesia is also widespread on the internet since its invention and it became easier to swap ideas between the source and receiver. There is also better connectivity and people are able to soak in ideas faster into the “common pool”. Vannevar Bush referred to it in 1945 as the “common record”. Currently, people are becoming more and more engrossed in this “common record” and as a result, creativity is endangered. On the other hand, instead of being a threat to creativity, it might actually be its destiny and actually an inherent part of it.  



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