Regular readers of my essays will know that I am a sucker for new words -words I haven’t run across before, words that capture my imagination. Some -like blog (web log)- have become mainstream of course, whereas others -like, say, pareidolia (seeing significant patterns in random shapes)- have not. I’m not a scavenger, though -someone who collects discarded words; I’d like to think I’m more of a resurrector of interesting ideas, a rejuvenator of misplaced concepts.
Cryptomnesia is a case in point. It refers to thinking of something as new and original when, in fact, it is actually something merely remembered from the past. As Wikipedia (sorry) puts it: ‘It is a memory bias whereby a person may falsely recall generating a thought, an idea, a tune, a name, or a joke, not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.’
I was first introduced to the term in an essay in a BBC Future article by Richard Fisher, a Senior Journalist with BBC Global News in London: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200827-social-cryptomnesia-how-society-steals-ideas
He defines it more succinctly however: ‘cryptomnesia is a term for when a forgotten memory is repackaged as your own idea.’ But he suggests it’s related to an ‘even more problematic form of idea-appropriation, called social cryptomnesia which describes our failure to give credit to minorities for their role in provoking social change… “At an individual level, it happens unconsciously,” says Fabrizio Butera of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, who studies the spread of minority views. “But at a society level, it can be more deliberate.”’
‘[T]he study of “minority influence” has shown ever-more evidence that privileges enjoyed today – free education, women’s suffrage, democracy, pensions, human rights and more – took hold following the struggles of an unpopular minority against an unconvinced majority… But the science also suggests that their contribution will be forgotten.’
Of course there is another dark side to this social cryptomnesia: ‘it allows established power to endure, and discrimination against minority groups to carry on… Minorities are often stuck in a trap where they must depart from established cultural norms to win headlines and amplify their voices, but doing so means they may be shunned by the mainstream. “The very mechanism that made them visible, also makes the general public not want to identify with them,” says Butera. “Their ideas are taken on board, but they’re kept at the fringes of society.”’
But minorities are sometimes tricky to categorize, don’t you think? Is it lack of numbers, or a lack of power that defines them -or, for that matter, lack of respect? Take me, for example! When I was a child, I was a sort of minority: nobody really listened to me… well, took me seriously, at any rate. More often than not, my opinions on issues about which I felt competent to speak, were met with smiles, or inter-parental winks that suggested tolerance, not agreement. Children, in those post-war Winnipeg days, were loved, but not cosseted. And although my big brother thinks I was spoiled as a child, he lies.
Take spinach, as an example. Every child knew that spinach would be ruined by boiling it until it hung like a wet towel on the fork. It seemed obvious to me at the time, and I would lose patience with it when it was poured unceremoniously onto my plate. This did not sit well with my mother’s personal assumption of omniscience, and many a dessert lay hardening in the fridge as a result.
It’s interesting though that, incompetent as my opinion was assumed to be, I did not have the same issues with boiled carrots. I kind of liked them, to tell the truth -although I suspect it might have had something to do with my mother’s penchant for adding brown sugar during the cooking process.
Never one to waste an opportunity for improvement, I once suggested a similar addition to the spinach recipe, but I could tell by the look on her face that my mother took this as a criticism of her culinary capabilities. And since she had learned most of them from her mother, I wondered if I might end up being relegated to an orphanage rather than my room for disloyalty to the family. Suffice it to say, I did not pursue that line of reasoning.
But, to return to social cryptomnesia, my contribution to the perils of over-boiling spinach have been largely forgotten. Completely forgotten, actually. Nowadays, however, one seldom finds boiled spinach on a salad, or slopped onto a dainty plate in a high-end restaurant. And, consensus is building about what might be lost in overcooking.
Okay, I admit that there are still voices that advocate the Goldilockean version of dealing with spinach: a just-right-baby-bear approach to cooking it. On the one hand, raw spinach contains oxalic acid, an organic substance that can interfere with the absorption of things like calcium and iron. And heating spinach breaks down oxalic acid –heating it, mind you, not incinerating it. Not pulping it into a memory.
Of course, uncooked, it is still rich in many must-have items -like folate, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, not to mention potassium- and some of these are more available to our bodies when we consume raw spinach.
But, social cryptomnesia, true to form, denied children a plaque on the spinach pedestal. You might say it’s because they only kicked up a fuss at the dinner table and they never put their objections in writing, never submitted their ideas for peer-review. But there were reasons for that -not least of which being their ages at the time. Our opinions were just that: opinions -and lacking proof, were ignored. And yet, even if only partially correct, we awakened a new approach to spinach that surely should be acknowledged, if not fêted.
Times have changed, though, and nowadays a suitably limp piece of spinach hanging from the tines of a fork could probably start something on Snapchat. Or a YouTube video of a mother stirring a cauldron of boiling spinach with a wooden basting spoon might go viral. This isn’t to say that cryptomnesia can no longer occur, of course. But it is possible that my recollection of spinach from prepubescence is flawed, and that my disavowal of boiled spinach was tainted by my equal dislike of lumps in the oatmeal porridge we had for breakfast every winter morning. I’m not really sure about those days anymore -my brother says we only ever had toast…