Friday, February 1, 2013

WTFriday: False memories and unintended plagiarism

Today's WTFriday isn't about a preposterous assertion, but rather a surprising bit of research. Today the New York Review of Books includes an article by Oliver Sacks in which he recalls two vivid childhood memories, one of which he later realized never happened to him.

Most of us have probably disputed the accuracy of a memory with a relative or friend at some point or another ("You said I could have your cupcake." "There is no way I said that."). Many of us have probably also recalled bits of conversation, or standing in a particular place at a particular time, and wondered if it actually happened or if we dreamed it up. At least, I hope that happens to someone besides me.

Sacks writes that we sometimes construct memories, either of an experience that we know we had but might not remember in specific detail or of experiences that have happened to others and been vividly recounted to us.

More problematic, though, is the possibility of incorporating chunks of other artists' songs and prose into our own music and writing without realizing it. You know, plagiarism.

The article mentions a few famous cases, including George Harrison's unconscious borrowing from a Ronald Mack song and Helen Keller's spin-off of a story that she likely heard before she even understood language. Such is the power of the subconscious.

This brings to mind more recent cases of plagiarism, such as the infamous How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The teenage author was accused of plagiarizing specific passages from almost half a dozen other novelists, and she said, "I really thought the words were my own. I guess it's just been in my head. I feel as confused as anyone about it, because it happened so many times."

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