Cryptomnesia is a memory that has been forgotten and then returns without being recognized as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. In general, the memory returns in the form of an idea or intuition, but reappearances in the form of actions have also been included.
The word was first used by the Geneva-based psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy in From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages (1901/1994), his book about the case of the spiritualist medium Catherine-Élise Müller, who used the name Hélène Smith. It thus comes out of an attempt at a rational approach to spiritualist phenomena that showed a delusional character: "In the communications or messages provided by mediums, the first (but not the only) question that arises is always whether, where spiritualists see the influence of disembodied spirits or some other supranormal cause, one is not simply dealing with cryptomnesia, with latent memories on the part of the medium that come out, sometimes greatly disfigured by a subliminal work of imagination or reasoning, as so often happens in our ordinary dreams."
In his thesis, "On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena" (1902), and an article, "Cryptomnesia" (1905), Carl Gustav Jung expressed his belief that he had isolated this phenomenon in Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Cryptomnesia was the object of a few studies or mentions until around 1920 (Géza Dukes, Sándor Ferenczi, Wilhelm Stekel). Thereafter, it was seldom mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature and was even rarer in the psychological and psychiatric literature.
The notion's interest remains marked by the particular use Sigmund Freud made of it, from 1919, by linking it to the issue of the originality of his inventions. Entering into the category of forgetting, cryptomnesia indexes it with a univocal meaning, that of tempering a claim to the originality of an idea. In an article signed "F." and titled "Note on the Prehistory of the Technique of Analysis" (1920), Freud acknowledged that a text by Ludwig Börne, 'Die Kunst in drei Tagen ein Original-Schriftsteller zu werden (How to become an original writer in three days; 1823), had served as a precursor to the technique of free association. Freud also mentioned his cryptomnesia with regard to Josef Popper-Lynkeus, Empedocles, and Wilhelm Fliess, and interpreted Georg Groddeck's statements along these lines. It is known that he was sometimes reluctant to refer to himself as the inventor of psychoanalysis, invoking the contributions of Josef Breuer, and that in addition, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), he made himself vulnerable to a claim of priority on the part of his friend Fliess by accusing himself of harboring the unconscious wish to steal the idea of bisexuality from him. No doubt we should see in this problematic, to which Freud linked the meaning of cryptomnesia, the characteristic difficulty the man of science has in taking personal responsibility for a discovery that shakes the foundations of the very rationality he identifies himself with. Invoking cryptomnesia in this context arguably means maintaining the fiction of a subject-supposed-to-know guaranteeing that the knowledge was already there before the creator invented it.
See also: Amnesia; "Autobiographical Study, An"; Flournoy, Théodore; Forgetting; Free association; Memories; Memory; Mnemic trace/memory trace; Repression.
Freud, Sigmund. (1920). A note on the prehistory of the technique of analysis. SE 18: 263-265.
——. (1923). Josef Popper-Lynkeus and the theory of dreams. SE 19: 259-263.
Flournoy, Theodore. (1994). From India to the planet Mars: A case of multiple personality with imaginary languages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1901)
Jung, Carl Gustav. (1902). On the psychology and pathology of so-called occult phenomena. Coll. works, Vol. 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
——. (1905). Cryptomnesia. Coll. works, Vol. 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; United States Bollingen Foundation.
Trosman, Harry. (1969). The cryptomnesic fragment in the discovery of free association. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 17 (2), 489-510.
A term coined by Theodore Flournoy and used in psychical research to denote unconscious memory. It may be accessible in trance and explain much unusual information, or knowledge recalled under special circumstances.
Italian researcher Cesare Lombroso says in his book After Death—What? (1909):
"Under certain circumstances, i.e. when I am at great altitude, say six or seven thousand feet, I remember Italian, Latin and even Greek verses which had been forgotten for years. But I know very well that I read them in early youth. Similarly, during certain dreams in nights when I am afflicted with conditions showing intestinal poisonings disagreeable memories of years previous … are reproduced with precision, and with particulars so minute and exact that I could not possibly recall them when awake. Yet I observed that they are always fragmentary and incomplete recollections and depend more on the conditions of the sentiments than on the intelligence."
Cryptomnesia has been encountered in instances of plagiarism in which authors use material from other writers, without any conscious memory that they have acquired such material from their prior reading, rather than from their own creativity. Through the twentieth century, cryptomnesia has been increasingly used to explain some extraordinary information given by entranced persons.
It played an important role in explaining the case of Bridey Murphy. In a hypnotic state, Ruth Simmons (pseudonym of Virginia Tighe) described in some detail a former life as a person who lived in Ireland in the early nineteenth century. M. V. Kline was one of several psychologists who suggested that Simmons had compiled a number of forgotten memories to create the character of Bridey. It was also discovered that as a girl, Simmons had lived across the street from an Irish family which included a woman whose maiden name was Bridie Murphy. The critique of the Bridey Murphy case suggested cryptomnesia as an explanation of many past-life and similar memories produced by people under hypnotism. It has also been invoked to explain some instances of xenoglossis, in which people speak a language they have never learned.
Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.