What is Cryptomnesia?

Have you ever had an “aha!” moment where you thought of something you believed was brand new, but it turned out you had heard or seen it before? That’s cryptomnesia. It’s like your brain recycles an old idea and presents it to you as a fresh one. So, one simple definition of cryptomnesia is: A mix-up in your memory that makes you think an old idea is a new one you invented. Another way to describe it is: It’s when your mind forgets the origin of a memory and mistakenly believes you’re the first to think of something, even though it’s not the first time it’s crossed your path.

How Does Cryptomnesia Affect Us?

  • Mistaken plagiarism: Think of a writer who creates a story and later finds out the plot is almost the same as a book they read long ago. They didn’t mean to copy—it just slipped their mind, and now they’re in hot water for plagiarism.
  • Repeated ideas in the workplace: Imagine someone at work throwing out what they believe is a brilliant new strategy, only to realize it’s the same one a coworker suggested weeks ago. This can cause mix-ups and make people feel like their efforts aren’t valued.
  • Legal issues in the arts: It’s like when a musician comes up with a tune, records a song, and then discovers the melody was borrowed from another song they heard years ago. They didn’t do it on purpose, but now they might be facing a legal headache.

A clear instance of cryptomnesia is if a musician thinks up a catchy line of music, uses it in their song, and shares it with the world, only to learn that the tune already belongs to another artist’s creation from decades ago. This could mean a serious lawsuit for essentially ‘stealing’ someone else’s work, even though it was never the musician’s intention to do so.

Examples of Cryptomnesia

  • A student writes an essay and composes a compelling argument they believe is original, but it’s actually something they vaguely remember from a documentary they watched a year ago. This is cryptomnesia because the student didn’t realize the argument wasn’t their own idea.
  • An inventor comes up with a gadget design and later discovers a similar product in an old magazine at the dentist’s office. This shows how the inventor’s unconscious mind held onto the concept without their awareness.
  • A comedian tells a joke onstage thinking they made it up, but it’s actually a joke from a show they saw as a kid. The humor buried itself in their memory and popped out as what they thought was their own funny creation.
  • A teacher develops what they think is an innovative teaching method but later learns it’s a technique from a seminar they attended years ago. Their intent was pure, but their memory blended the past with the present.
  • An artist paints a picture with a unique style but it turns out to mirror the style of an art piece they admired long ago. The artist’s memory sneakily guided their hand without them recognizing the old influence.

Dealing with Cryptomnesia

  • Maintain records: Like writing down a trail of breadcrumbs, keeping track of where ideas come from can help you avoid unwittingly presenting someone else’s thoughts as your own.
  • Seek feedback: By sharing your projects with people around you, they can act as a mirror to show you anything you might have missed or forgotten, such as the true source of your idea.
  • Take breaks: Sometimes, stepping back from your work is like taking off tinted glasses. It can clear up your vision, helping you see if your work looks too much like someone else’s.
  • Train your memory: Think of your memory as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. A stronger memory can help you remember where your inspirations come from.

Related Biases and Concepts

  • Deja vu: This happens when you’re hit with a strong sensation that you’ve lived through the exact same moment before, even if you’re positive you haven’t. It’s like a glitch in your memory, making you feel as if you’re on repeat.
  • Confirmation bias: This is when someone pays attention to things that support what they already think and ignores anything that doesn’t. It’s like only listening to music that you like and tuning out everything else.
  • Source memory errors: That’s when you remember information, like a fact or a story, but can’t remember where you learned it. It’s like finding a leaf in your pocket but having no idea which tree it came from.

Debates and Controversies

Some people wrestle with the idea of whether cryptomnesia always just happens by accident or if sometimes people might pretend it’s cryptomnesia to cover up the fact that they meant to copy someone. There’s also a theory that our own brain might sneakily hide where we got an idea to make us feel more creative. On the other hand, some experts stand firm, saying it’s just a slip-up in how we remember things, with no sneaky stuff involved. When it comes to figuring out if someone should be punished for what looks like stealing someone else’s work because of cryptomnesia, psychologists and lawyers often don’t see eye to eye, because it’s tough to tell if it was a true mistake or not.

Final Thoughts

Understanding cryptomnesia helps us see that we can’t always trust our memories to be spot-on. This memory mix-up can touch our lives whether we’re painting a picture, working on a project, or even dealing with the law. By being aware of how cryptomnesia works, keeping track of where our ideas come from, and getting a second pair of eyes on things, we can better navigate this tricky aspect of how we think. This way, we can aim for true originality in our thoughts and what we make, while honoring the work of others that came before us.