Forgotten Memories


How many of us rely on “forgotten memories”? 

My question was prompted by Oliver Sacks’s article entitled “Speak, Memory” in the New York Review of Books.  In it he recounts his discovery, some years after publishing his memoir, that one of his most vivid childhood memories was false.  Not false, as in he made it up, but false as in it happened to someone else.  His memory was based an extensive and moving description of the event in a letter from his brother. He “remembered” the details of the event, but he “forgot” the source of the information.

His article went on to explore the difference between plagiarism and cryptomnesia.  Plagiarism implies intentionality, a conscious and willing misappropriation of someone else’s ideas or images.  By contrast, cryptomnesia (“hidden memory”) describes ideas and images that emerge in consciousness without memory of their source.  

Cryptomnesia, according to Sacks, can be a vital factor in creativity, insofar as it allows ideas and thoughts to be “reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.”  But how often is that “new idea” simply a remembering of an idea whose context or source you no longer remember?

Sacks has put a name to a phenomenon that has bothered me in recent months.  As I do my own blog and write guest posts on other blogs, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use Google Alerts to find new sources on topics (memoir vs. fiction, letting go, mindfulness, risk-taking) that are of particular interest to me.  

Often, my new blog builds on an idea I’ve used before.  But often, it builds on someone else’s idea, much as today’s blog does.  I make a concerted effort to give credit to the author of the idea, but I do wonder how often I use an “idea” without realizing that it really isn’t mine, that I have “forgotten” where the idea came from.

This is, I think, a distinction that writers of all stripes (not just memoirists) should be sensitive to.  Aren’t we all “cryptomnesiacs”?!


  1. Very interesting, Mary. At one time, Iowa Public Radio aired a show called “The Big Brain.” The idea was that somewhere in our collective brains there as an answer to just about any question. The hosts put caller questions to the collective “Big Brain” of listeners. The answers generally popped out before the end of the show. Meanwhile, the Borg of Star Trek fame, relied on the collective brain where everyone would be assimilated and “resistance is futile.” A point made in both cases is that we need and are perhaps better if we rely on our collective brainpower. Even though I’ve often heard that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (I forget who said that!), I’m glad to have a name for what I’ve no doubt done plenty of: Cryptomnesia.

    • From Sacks’s article, I think he would applaud the collective brain, and the dialogue that goes on a different ideas run up against each other. The scary thing is using something you think is your own, and realizing too late that it is not!

  2. Mary, what an intriguing post you’ve shared with us today! I’ve always understood plagiarism, but until today had never heard of cryptomnesia. Is there an injection against that do you suppose? 🙂

  3. I find this very timely. A friend of mine recently said she chose to ignore it when her brother told her memories as his own. The same thing happened to me with my brother years ago. He read a short story I wrote filled with memories from my childhood. When I visited with him a few months after sending him the story, he recounted an event from “his” childhood that I was certain happened to me (and then wrote about in the short story). Now that I’m reading your post, I’m considering if perhaps I’m the one who stole his memory? Very thought-provoking. Thanks, Mary.

    • Patricia … I have several “memories” from my childhood which, if I think about them logically, seem highly improbable, as I was very young. But they are vivid indeed, and I can only assume that someone told me about the incidents. I just wonder how many other such memories are of the same sort, but I hold as my own because I was old enough to have had them!

  4. Yes, I thought this article in the NY Review of books was fascinating, too. It’s about time somebody spoke up about this. It must happen a lot where we see something once and it’s stored in the mind only to pop out as a concept we think we originated. This must happen in the music world, too–hey, you stole a line of my tune! I think here the trick is to build upon it. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only words and pictures.

    • It does happen quite often. Sacks gave the example of George Harrison, who was found guilty of using another artist’s lyrics, even though everyone agreed he didn’t do it intentionally!

  5. I’ve done this. Written something and then thought, “Hmm… did I read that somewhere? How did I get that idea?” So it’s possible that I’ve inadvertently stolen someone else’s idea. Of course, whenever I KNOW I’m quoting or using someone else’s themes, I credit them. Still, I take comfort in what Linda (above) said. “Ideas can’t be copyrighted.”

    Even more close to home, however is the fact that during a 7 year period of my life, I was coerced into believing things about my childhood that weren’t true. I was under tremendous pressure to cough up memories of abuse so I could please the guru I was subject to. Sometimes those “memories” felt extremely real, especially since I had an undiagnosed anxiety and sleep disorder. I write about all of this in my forthcoming memoir. How I finally, after 15 years, came to see that it was all just a bunch of hooey.

    The mind is very amenable. We absorb things all the time. I’m reminded of the multiple eyewitness accounts and how they’re all slightly varied because of the uniqueness of each eyewitness. I think the key is to do your best to be genuine and truthful. We all make mistakes but a truth-seeker is more apt to be forgiven for a grievance than someone who has no conscience and purposely seeks to deceive. (Like politicians.)

    Great post, Mary!

    • Grace … I was well aware, as I wrote this blog, about the children whose memories are based on “suggestion” from therapists or others who may have an agenda that the child doesn’t know or understand. You are most fortunate in having come to realize what happened. I look forward to your book. When will it be out?

  6. As a psychologist I’ve never heard the term before but see it ALL the time. In writing I think “so what who cares as long as it keeps me turning the page.” As a psychotherapist I think, “Oh no, this is gonna take TWO sessions.”

  7. Everything ever known has either been written down in a book or is walking around on two feet. It is very hard to have an original thought or idea. Accept that we copy, and hope we are smart enough to learn from history.

    • Hi Walt … nice to hear from you. I agree that there is very little that is “new and original”, but I like to think that we have the ability to offer perspectives and insights that, while they may not be entirely “new,” are helpful or interesting to those around us.

  8. Intriguing post! I wonder if the following falls into the category of “cryptomnesia: Stories about my early childhood that I heard my mother repeat so often that I started to believe I remembered them myself. And I made them my own. However, honestly , I’m not so sure anymore.They have merged…blended in together so vivdly that they now appear to have been real…:)

    • Siggy .. you are focusing on exactly his example … my own is a day at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago that I “remember” so clearly, except that I was only three, and couldn’t possibly have remembered the detail that I have. I am sure my memory comes from photos and my parents’ stories of the day. But then I ask if I would held on to that memory if the “stories” didn’t echo something in my own childish mind. Hmmmmh?!

  9. This provides a teaser for the author of biography, which i do for my job, or literary fiction basede loosely on one’s own life, which I do for both adults and tweens. the Ya/MG series is explicit, playing with temporal paradox. In literary fiction, all I seem to be able to do is recreate or reimagine real-life experiences – which is why a friend and I will be going down the street on foot or in the car, and one of us will recognize spontaneously, “now, that’s a poem.” Away the experience goes in my brain – to be eaten later.

    • Ron .. how neat you happened on this after two months! But you’re so right. Those forgotten memories color everything we do … real life, as well as all the ways in which we writers try to be creative. As the weeks pass, I am more and more humbled by how much all the “forgotten memories” of my life influence everything I write.

  10. Very interesting! I think that happens to musicians as well, a tune seems to come out of nowhere but it was really sitting in the subconscious. As well, there is the phenomena of an idea becoming a part of the collective consciousness and thereafter being simultaneously accessed by distinct individuals who have never met or spoken.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Elan. I have been much more careful, since I read Sach’s article, about taking credit for ideas. I’ve done some study of Jung and the collective consciousness, mostly in the context of myth. But I suppose it can work for anything, including music or poetry or science.
      I look forward to keeping in touch.

  11. Mary:

    Great topic! Every time a new “plagiarism” scandal comes out, especially from someone who absolutely knows better than to outright copy someone else’s work, I’ve wondered about a phenomenema similar to what you describe. How is a person who reads dozens of books every year and consumes countless articles on the internet SUPPOSED to incorporate that information into our brains – without sounding like we copied it somewhere? Very interesting post.


    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Clare … it’s been a challenge for me for a long time … I can often “see” a particular phrase on the page, but have no idea on what page or in which book or on which website. Very annoying.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for the reminder that people do see older posts. Happy New Year!

  12. It’s interesting to see that you and Oliver Sacks just recently wrote about cryptomnesia, since it’s something I’ve been contemplating as well. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of literature and art, but it seems like it could be a very disturbing experience on a personal level to realize that there is proof your memories didn’t actually happen to you. It seems to me that when people are overly concerned about plagiarism, they’re discounting the way people have to synthesize ideas to learn things in the first place. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on cryptomnesia, my post is here:

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joseph … I read your post with great interest … I loved the perspective on changing attitudes toward using other people’s materials in whole or in part. It’s always been a big thing in music (variations on a theme by …..), but at least in my world, seems to have been largely frowned upon. I got hooked on the subject when I did my memoir, realizing how flawed my memory was … but the equally interesting aspect is how much our own ideas grow from the “use” of other people’s thinking. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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