Jun 17

“Forgetting”: Douwe Draaisma Sees As Inevitable Necessity

Whereas author Douwe Draaisma, a professor of psychology in the Netherlands, has already focused on the phenomenon of memory in such books such as Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past (2012) and The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing (2013), now his preoccupation is its counterpart, forgetting.

In Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations (2015) Draaisma notes that it is an inevitable phenomenon no matter what the memory-boosting marketers promise. “…(M)emory is not a muscle that can be built up through mental gymnastics,” writes Heller McAlpin, Washington Post, about Draaisma’s opinion.

Quoting him: “After the age of fifty we fight a dogged battle with forgetting — not for the first time, since this is something we do all our lives, but we tend to be defeated more often.”

Selected Quotes From Draaisma’s Recent Interview With Gareth Cook, Scientific American

Roughly three in four first memories are associated with negative emotions.

Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, there is no such a thing as deliberate forgetting. Rather the reverse, we seem to have a very tenacious type of memory for the things we would gladly forget, such as childhood humiliations, embarrassing situations or scenes you had rather not witnessed. But even if there were some technique of forgetting, of editing at will what you remember or forget, most people tell me they would hesitate to do so.

Without painful memories you may find yourself repeating painful situations. So, not being able to forget what you dearly would like to forget may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Two Quotes From Draaisma’s Interview With Yale Books

I was intrigued by the phenomenon that my dear colleagues sometimes remember my ideas, but seem to have forgotten that is was my idea. This is a case of ‘cryptomnesia’…When someone presents an idea, different aspects of this situation get processed in different types of memory. Semantic memory takes care of the meaning of the idea, its connection with other ideas, and so on. Autobiographical memory retains the fact that it was this particular person who came up with the idea. Semantic memory helps you remember the facts, the information, but does a poor job in retaining the circumstances in which you acquired these facts.

When you wake up from a dream you wake up with the final scene in the dream-story, for instance that you are trapped in a cellar. Then you try to reconstruct how you came there and may remember that you were hiding there because someone had entered your home. So you try to reconstruct your dream by following it against the direction of time, backwards. And this implies that you have no help of what normally helps you to remember stories, such as the fact that causes come first and effects later or questions first, answers later. And since working backwards is a time-consuming thing, the beginning of the dream will have faded once you get there. Remembering a dream is like watching the movie Memento.

Feb 09

Accidental Plagiarism: Subconscious Memory Failure

People knowledgeable about accidental plagiarism, e.g., Adam Grant (author of the 2013 Give and Take), would say there’s a reasonable chance that the writing of this post or—anyone else’s post—could involve subconsciously stealing at least a little of someone else’s ideas. Key words: accidental, subconscious.

So, what is accidental plagiarism? It’s synonymous, for one thing, with kleptomnesia, a term Grant attributes to psychologist Dan Gilbert. Kleptomnesia involves “generating an idea that you believe is novel, but in fact was created by someone else.” Interestingly, according to Maria Popova, Brainpickings, other psychologists (starting with Alan Brown and Dana Murphy, 1989) have called this by another name, cryptomnesia.

How does accidental plagiarism manifest? Grant offers the example of George Harrison, who, newly out on his own post-Beatles-breakup, was successfully sued regarding his popular “My Sweet Lord.” Why? Too similar to “He’s So Fine” (1963) by the Chiffons. The judge also ruled, though, that at least Harrison likely didn’t mean to do it.

Another songwriting incident occurred very recently. It turns out that Grammy winner Sam Smith‘s highly popular and current “Stay With Me” pretty closely imitates one of Tom Petty’s older hits; because of this, Smith agreed to share writing credits with Petty. Again, it would appear that Smith had no conscious recognition of borrowing from Petty.

It’s not just about songs, of course. Accidental joke theft, for example, is “every comedian’s biggest fear,” says comic Marc Maron (Huffington Post). And very often it’s the category of ideas, quotes, or stories that are unwittingly claimed as one’s own. Sometimes that feels to me like identity theft. But, again, it’s probably not intentional.

Cases of inadvertent creative filching are actually quite common, and various research studies have supported this. In one classic study cited by Grant, 75% of the participants committed unintentional plagiarism.

Grant explains the phenomenon of such memory failure further:

Kleptomnesia happens due to a pragmatic, but peculiar, feature of how human memory is wired. When we encode information, we tend to pay more attention to the content than the source. Once we accept a piece of information as true, we no longer need to worry about where we acquired it.

It’s especially difficult to remember the source of information when we’re busy, distracted, or working on a complex task.

Siri Carpenter, APA, has pointed out that cryptomnesia can actually have benefits, though—for instance, in therapy. Quoting Richard L. Marsh, a cognitive psychologist and researcher of cryptomnesia: “There’s a classic phenomenon in clinical psychology, where a therapist will be trying to get a client to believe something about their behavior, and the client is often resistant at first,” he explains. “Then, the client comes in one day with an ‘insight.’ They’re often not really insights at all–they’re just expressions of what the therapist has been saying.”

(Not unique to therapy, by the way. Think of all the times your great feedback or advice to a friend or partner has been rejected—until one day you hear it reflected back to you as though it’s brand new wonderful stuff.)

On the other hand, can’t the reverse also happen in therapy? Therapists might, for instance, offer oh-so-smart words of wisdom to a client that actually originated elsewhere but feel like one’s own.

Or, better yet in its irony, a therapist’s fabulous idea for a client may have been formulated in an earlier session by the client him- or herself!

What’s anyone to do? Maybe just hope that everyone’s memory is as deficient as the next person’s so that no one will notice? Alternatively, Adam Grant has said that mindfulness goes a long way, as does always doing everything possible to ensure that credit is given where credit is due. (Did I mention that this came from Adam Grant?)