Cryptomnesia revisited (is this even possible?)

I mentioned in my last post that I had an intuitive sense that cryptomnesia must somehow be deeply important to creativity, but that I was also sure that someone else had already said it.

Turns out I was right on both score, or at least on the score that someone already said it. Siri Carpenter reports in the Monitor on Psychology that four psychologists have conducted tests whose results suggest the process of forgetting that one has learned something is important to creativity:

The mechanisms that underlie cryptomnesia also have important implications for creativity, Marsh believes. Recently, he, Landau, Hicks and psychologist Thomas B. Ward, PhD, of Texas A&M University, have examined how unconscious learning affects the creative process. In one series of experiments, for example, the researchers asked participants to draw novel space creatures. They found that when participants were first shown a few examples of space creatures that all contained some features in common, such as four legs, antennae and a tail, participants reliably included those features in their own drawings–even though they were instructed not to copy any of the features used in the examples.

“If we want to understand how it is that people design skyscrapers, or write music, or write a New York Times best seller,” Marsh concludes, “I think we need to acknowledge that nothing we design is ever truly novel–every creative effort contains vestiges of what we have experienced in the past.”

I admit that this particular experiment and its definition of creativity strike me as kind of lame, but it still gets at the fact that creation is a cobbling together of things we’ve already known rather than a fashioning tout court. My earlier intuition is more along the lines that people we view as truly creative have the ability to forget, which is as important as the ability to remember. By absorbing ideas, stories, images, and yet forgetting their original context, we are freed to recombine them in new and interesting ways more readily than those who remain slaves to context and origin.

This is, of course, no respecter of intellectual property rights, but don’t forget that Shakespeare’s best ideas were plagiarism–perhaps both conscious and unconscious–of other less accomplished playwrights.

There are apparently a couple of other documented literary cases of cryptomnesia, one pretty definite, the other speculative. At the New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum wrote an essay about the speculation of a professor that Nabokov’s clear use of someone else’s lolita-like story represents a case not so much of conscious plagiarism as of cryptomnesia. Professor Michael Marr provides some pretty well-documented evidence that Robert Musil recognized his own cryptomensia in a couple of scenes of Man Without Qualities.

There’s also an interesting claim at Andrew Brown, Queen’s Counsel, an intellectual property web-site, to the effect that creative people are especially susceptible to Cryptomnesia.

The psychiatrist C G Jung in his book Man and His Symbols outlines that the brain never forgets an impression, no matter how slight. The mind has an ability to recall old impressions particularly during a creative process and what is perceived as a “new” creation can in fact be past memories subconsciously recalled. This can give rise to subconscious plagiarism or what psychiatrists call cryptomnesia.

Those with left brain creativity such as artists, composers or fashion designers can all be particularly susceptible to subconscious copying.

I also ran across a number of writers who say they are terrified of cryptomnesia. I suspect that in part, it’s graduate student sydrome. Always frantic to keep track of the last footnote to demonstrate the three sentences of ideas that you actually have are really your own, most dissertations ever written are more dully derivative that a sophomore’s thesis. I, at least, didn’t feel like I was really becoming a scholar until I knew the field well enough to forget where I had learned things. This started happening about 10 years after I finished graduate school.

In general I suspect that the books of folks worried about cryptomnesia aren’t all that good. They are so obsessed with the question of whether they are original that they don’t leave themselves any space to be creative.

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