Bias number 35 is known as cryptomnesia. This bias affects our recall and interpretation of memory.
In particular, a person is subject to cryptomnesia when he has a thought that he believes is original when, in fact, it is a memory that he has forgotten. In certain circles, this might be labelled plagiarism, but in reality, it is an error in labelling a memory as a new thought or inspiration.
Recognised as a bias in the mid-19th century, cryptomnesia has been around the block several times. Freud mentioned it. Jung wrote an article about it. Several studies have been conducted to understand why the brain processes memory in this way.
Scientists have identified two types of cryptomnesia. One concerns the content of the thought and the other concerns the author of the thought.
There are numerous examples in literature of famous people such as Byron and Nietzsche whose works closely resemble those written at an earlier time. So what causes it? Do you think Byron and Nietzsche were, in fact, passing off another’s work as their own, or were they affected by this bias?
People are more susceptible to cryptomnesia when they are removed from the original source of information. Having read a book or article previously, they absorb the information, store bits and pieces in their memory bank and forget that they’ve done so. Years later, when a situation calls for it, the memory is produced, and it takes on the appearance of a new idea.
Greater source confusion exists between members of the same sex, too. Perhaps there is an unconscious identification made between the receiver of the piece of information and the person delivering the information.
Whatever the reason for its existence, cryptomnesia can affect even the cleverest of thinkers. So, is it something for you to be concerned about?
In academic settings, it can cause a problem. Plagiarism, for obvious reasons, is a big no-no. If you’re an avid consumer of information, can you be entirely sure that every idea that comes into your head is an original one?
You can’t. In academia, though, you need to be able to share your resources appropriately. Failure to do so can be a career-limiting move, inflicting damage on your reputation as a credible professional.
Similarly, in the creative arts like literature and music, a number of well-known cases have been brought to court in which someone lays claim to the original idea that made someone famous — and wealthy. JK Rowling’s series Harry Potter is a prime example of this.
The courts threw Rowling's case out of court after seven long years. It is quite possible, though, that Rowling had read the book, The Adventures of Willy the Wizard by Adrian Jacobs years ago and had included a storyline strikingly similar to the one in Jacobs’ book.
If she had been under the spell (pun intended) of cryptomnesia, she would be in good company. And she’s not a bad person for having let a little memory bias influence her choice of story arc and character development, is she?
Look, some people like Mark Twain asserted that there is no such thing as an original idea, only adaptations or improvements to an original idea that has been in existence.
What about the internet, you say? Isn’t it just an extension of the Pony Express, which is an extension of hieroglyphs, which is an extension of a cuneiform tablet, which is an extension of cave paintings, which is an extension of sand paintings?
How far do you want to travel back in time to find out where and when it all started? Personally, I’d love to know, but I also realise that it’s almost certainly a futile task. We have so little information about our pre-antediluvian ancestors that we could be forever searching for the proverbial needle in a planet-sized haystack.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and I am grateful for those whose curiosity leads them to dive deep into our ancestral heritage to find out.
At the same time, you have to ask yourself, “How does it help me right here and right now?”
With regard to this particular bias, I would say that we’re all guilty of it in some way. In the office, you might take offence at someone who passes your idea off as hers.
Consider she may not be doing it on purpose.
Think back to the times when you’ve shared the ideas of your colleagues without having attributed them to the originating source. Has someone pulled you up on it?
Consider that the idea was probably not original in the first place.
This begs the question about the source of any idea. Where do ideas come from in the first place? Even if they are adaptations, someone somewhere had to recognise the innovation or thought as novel and then do something about it.
It’s a matter of attuning your brain to receive inspiration from the subtle realms in the first instance and recognise inspiration as such in the second. These realms are available to everyone. Are you tuned into them?
In business, it makes sense to protect “big ideas” through patents while recognising that there are other people receiving a similar message over the ideas airwaves as you. What will be unique is your expression of the idea. Don't be put off by "competition". There are plenty of ways to bring your own brand of brilliance to an idea.
It’s also a matter of exercising your grey matter to strengthen your memory. Participate in pub quizzes. Watch The Chase or University Challenge on telly. Use strategies like anchoring to help you remember the important tidbits of information. Record your inspirations in a notebook, a favourite trick of brilliant songwriters.
Finally, recognise that you’re human. Allow yourself to be fully human. Rejoice in the fact that an idea shared is an idea squared. Recognise it as a sign of your finger being firmly on the pulse of something trendy and potentially brilliant. Enjoy watching your ideas proliferate exponentially in the minds of others.
We are connected in more ways than you know.