Cryptomnesia: You've Never Had An Original Thought

Picture this. You’re in a work meeting attempting to troubleshoot a problem that your team has been struggling to figure out. You suggest something, a solution equal parts ingenious and elegant. Your coworkers are impressed and shower you with praise, all except for one person who for some reason looks upset. Afterwards this person confronts you, claiming they had mentioned this same solution to you during a private call last week, accusing you of intellectual theft.

“It was my idea!” You shout back. What if I told you that both of you are technically correct? That your brain stole your co-worker’s idea and convinced you that it was yours. Scary, right? This is cryptomnesia, the reality that most of our thoughts are not really ours. Also known as inadvertent or unconscious plagiarism, cryptomnesia is a memory error in which people mistakenly believe that a current thought or idea is a product of their own creation when, in reality, they have encountered it previously and then forgotten.

It’s a form of cognitive bias that uses the brain’s own tendency to inaccurately recall information in such a way that it benefits us. It can be something as simple as unintentionally stealing a coworker’s idea or as complex as accidentally recreating someone else’s art. In the fall of 1970, George Harrison formerly of the Beatles released his first single as a solo artist. “My Sweet Lord” was an instant hit, soaring to the top of charts around the world and becoming the number one single in the UK for 1971.

But what Harrison didn’t realize was that he had unwittingly plagiarized the song’s central melody. Soon after its release, a suit was filed against Harrison accusing him of copyright infringement. “My Sweet Lord” bore a striking resemblance to the late Ronnie Mack's song "He's So Fine" and Mack’s former production company wanted a cut of the royalties. What followed was one of the most notorious legal episodes in music history. Harrison found himself caught up in court battles for the next five years and litigation related to the case would plague him until the late 90s.

During the court proceedings, Harrison admitted to being familiar with the Ronnie Mack track, but said that he hadn’t deliberately stolen it. Though the judge overseeing the case affirmed Harrison’s claim, he still found the former Beatle guilty of inadvertently “copying of what was in [his] subconscious memory” and ruled in favor of Mack’s production company. The case set new legal precedents for future copyright suits and proved an enormous blow to Harrison personally who struggled to write new music for some time after the debacle.

In his autobiography, he later confessed to having thought "why didn't I realize?" when he heard the two songs compared side by side. Harrison isn’t the only artist to do this either. Other examples include author Robert Louis Stevenson reusing material he’d read, comedian Dane Cook retelling jokes, and singer Demi Lovato lifting samples from a small indie band. Surgeons have even published entire papers on supposedly “new” techniques that in actuality they learned during training.

But how does this happen? How is it possible that we can recall information that we’ve somehow simultaneously also forgotten? This was the question posed by American psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy in 1989 when they conducted what’s become known as the seminal scientific study into cryptomnesia. In a series of deceptively simple experiments, groups of students took turns coming up with examples for different categories of things such as sports, musical instruments and four-legged animals.

Months later, participants gathered again and were instructed to recall what items they themselves had mentioned previously. Then, a few months after that, they met for a final time and were asked to come up with new examples. During each of the later tasks, nearly 75% of participants listed at least one item that was mentioned by someone else in the group. These weren’t cases of simple confusion either. People also occasionally misattributed their own ideas as well, though instances of this were comparably rare.

Interestingly, the pattern of responses also indicated that plagiarism occurred more often in written tasks when compared to oral and, perhaps unsurprisingly, ideas that were expressed more frequently were especially likely to be stolen. Overall, plagiarized answers accounted for seven to nine percent of all responses. The experiment was itself borrowed from previous research into another kind of memory error known as “source amnesia” in which a person forgets the origin of a particular piece of information.

The difference between source amnesia and cryptomnesia is that the individual remembers that there was an original source, they just can’t remember what that source is. But with cryptomnesia, they completely forget that there was ever a source and believe that they themselves were the originator of the thought in question. A possible explanation for this unconscious plagiarism is that the brain has simply committed a mental error, incorrectly categorizing information by mixing up two different forms of memory.

One type known as semantic memory is what we might more generally refer to as “knowledge.” It includes things like the definition of the word “semantic,” that Paris is the capital of France, or the year that man first landed on the moon. Chances are you don’t remember where or how you learned this information, you just know it. The second type of memory is known as autobiographical memory and deals directly with the circumstances of our experiences. It records the exact context in which events happened to us, bringing back details such as the precise location, who was present, and the time of day.

Cryptomnesia then is a case of your brain miscategorizing information. Rather than an event being remembered as an autobiographical memory, it is saved as a purely semantic one. Just the raw information is retained. The larger context is lost. Famed Neurologist Olive Sacks said of the phenomenon: “It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.”

More recent studies have successfully replicated Brown and Murphy’s original findings, confirming just how easy it is to induce cryptomnesia. Even when participants were offered monetary rewards for correctly attributing ideas, they still occasionally claimed other people’s suggestions as their own, effectively demonstrating that cryptomnesia is something we don't do intentionally for personal gain. These different variations of the experiment have managed to uncover certain conditions that are likely to increase instances of the phenomenon.

For example, the “next-in-line” effect demonstrates how people who come immediately after you in a brainstorming session are more likely to accidentally steal your ideas. In fact, brainstorming sessions in general run a high risk of falling victim to unconscious plagiarism. Part of the reason might be exactly because of the collaborative environment. Nothing seems to increase instances of idea theft more than an open invitation to improve upon existing proposals. Add this to the fact that brainstorming sessions usually have a high degree of disorganization and chaos, and you can see why it’s easy for people to misremember who came up with what. 

Other factors such as stress, multi-tasking, and the amount of time that has passed between the event and the associated information being recalled also contribute to the likelihood that you might unintentionally engage in intellectual robbery. Cryptomnesia is worrying in its own right. The notion that you could mistakenly commit plagiarism at any given time is enough to make most people second guess even their best ideas. However, when you consider this alongside the influences of things like the internet and social media, it can scare anyone into pulling a George Harrison and simply stop creating.

While researching this video, I had to do a quick search on Youtube to make sure someone else hadn’t made the exact same video, just to be safe. Today, we are constantly being bombarded by content. We consume so much in a day, that it has become practically impossible to recall every TikTok video or Instagram story you watched, no matter how hard you try. Even for the people who avoid these platforms or limit the amount of time they spend on social media, its effect is still inescapable. The result is that we are more likely than ever to commit cryptomnesia.

The problem is so widespread that cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg has observed how contemporary authors increasingly borrow even from their own work in order to meet the intense demands of publishers. It’s gotten so bad that writers are stealing from themselves. And in a culture where creators are expected to churn out seemingly endless quantities of new material basically overnight, who can blame them? When there are so many people whose livelihoods are built around the expectation of constant creativity and when all of us are exposed to incessant streams of quick, easily forgettable media, how can we possibly avoid inadvertent plagiarism?

But the worst consequence of cryptomnesia isn’t legal battles or even that an artist might have their life’s work taken from them, rather it’s that it might be silencing the voices of entire populations. Humans tend to adopt and likewise steal the ideas of people that they relate to. False claims of originality occur at a significantly higher rate when the individuals involved share the same sex, race, or socio-economic group. This suggests that we are psychologically primed to favor and therefore advance ideas from those who look like us regardless of the value of those ideas.

This unconscious bias can serve as a form of groupthink and sideline ideas put forward by people who we don’t identify with. In the worst cases, this effectively serves as a form of intellectual discrimination against anyone who doesn’t fall into mainstream demographics. While unintentional, the effect can nearly be the same as if those people hadn’t been allowed in the room in the first place. As though this weren’t nefarious enough, it turns out cryptomnesia doesn’t just increase the probability that you will ignore ideas from people you don’t identify with. Ironically, it makes it more likely that you will steal their ideas as well.

Alongside the experiments of Alan Brown and Dana Murphy, other psychologists investigating cryptomnesia in the 1980s observed a phenomenon that they dubbed “social cryptomnesia.” In a series of studies, researchers asked participants about their attitudes toward issues like equal rights, environmentalism, and world peace. Most expressed positive opinions of these values, at least initially. But when participants were reminded of the groups who first campaigned for these causes - such as civil rights, green, and anti-war activists – their reported favorability dropped significantly.

Despite participants having adopted identical views as these groups, it seemed that they had forgotten their contributions. Not only that, but these groups were seen as radical or deviant despite their beliefs being essentially the same as the participants. More recently, in 2017, a study was carried out by Swiss researcher Fabrizio Butera investigating the effect of social cryptomnesia in relation to minority groups. In Butera’s experiment, groups of women were asked to express their agreement or disagreement with statements on gender equality. Support for issues like equal salary, the right to vote, and freedom to divorce was overwhelming.

Yet, this support diminished when the phrase “as proposed by feminist movements” was added to the statements, suggesting underlying prejudice. This despite every one of these issues having been fought for by suffragettes and other feminist movements throughout the 20th century. Though they may have shaped the popular discourse of today, most people seem to have largely forgotten about their contribution. The danger then of cryptomnesia is two-fold: not only are we biologically predisposed to ignore the ideas of people who don’t look like us, but in cases where we do adopt those ideas, it’s unlikely that we will give them credit.

The effect is a pathological undervaluing of minority activists, thinkers, and artists, leaving them in danger of being forgotten in spite of their contributions. Nearly everyone knows the name George Harrison and if you don’t, you definitely have heard of The Beatles, but I doubt you’ve ever heard of Ronnie Mack. If proper recognition isn’t given to the people who deserve it, it only serves to prop up existing power structures while perpetuating discrimination. In other words, it helps maintain the status quo. But how do we combat our bias? How do we stop ourselves from falling into the trap of cryptomnesia?

One easy way is by going back and consciously reviewing material. Research has shown that this can reduce rates of cryptomnesia by two-thirds. This kind of deliberate introspection where you occasionally ask yourself where you’ve acquired certain information or beliefs can help decrease derivative thinking. What’s even better, we can actually use this knowledge to help change people’s views of minority groups. 

Butera’s 2017 study on social cryptomnesia also found that when participants were made aware of the disconnect between their beliefs and their attitudes towards the feminists that first fought for those same beliefs, their opinions of the group improved. We’ll never be able to completely eliminate cryptomnesia, but with a bit of mindfulness, we can avoid its worst consequences and perhaps even use this knowledge to help change people’s minds for the better. That is if we don’t forget.