Memories Are Fallible (And That's a Good Thing)

Some things that you think happened to you probably didn't. That's just the nature of memory, says popular author and neurology professor Oliver Sacks, and that's a good thing.

What's the Latest Development?

Popular author and professor of neuroscience at NYU, Oliver Sacks was surprised to learn that some of his boyhood memories, published in a 2001 book, were shown by his brother to be completely false. Memories, according to Sacks and researchers before him, are highly vulnerable to "source confusion," meaning that we mistake a story we've been told or a film we've seen as an experience that has happened to us. Sacks, along with other luminaries like Samuel Coleridge, Hellen Keller and George Harrison, have all been found to have forgotten the source of their inspiration, claiming it to be their own work.

What's the Big Idea?

Since the creation of copyright law, the courts have tended to side with the source of inspiration, even when it is unconsciously plagiarized. But outside legal confines, Sacks says it is highly praiseworthy that we be allowed to beg, borrow and steal ideas from the collective cultural well: "This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds."

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Read it at The New York Review of Books

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