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Helen Keller, Cryptomnesia and the Many Systems of Memory

Helen Keller is famous for being a tremendously successful deaf, blind and mute writer and activist. She is also central to one of the most famous cases of cryptomnesia, a circumstance when a person utilizes implicit information whilst experiencing no phenomenal familiarity with the content. In this case, Helen wrote the story The Frost King and was accused of plagiarizing The Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby.

In the history of analytic philosophy, there is much debate about whether a cryptomnesic experience counts as a memory. Bertrand Russell [1] thought that a real memory needed the bearer to have the sense of familiarity that it was indeed a memory. His thinking is certainly shared by Hume [2], who argued that memories, as opposed to imaginings, were particularly vivid to the person experiencing them. Martin and Deutscher [3] pointed out that the necessary conditions of a memory were not the phenomenal experience of it as a memory, but the correct causal connection to the perceptual event that precipitated it. Contemporary cognitive science echos Martin and Deutscher's observation. It recognizes a variety of memory systems, some of which may be active during cryptomnesia and some--such as conscious familiarity--may be passive, making any binary classification of Helen Keller's experience insufficient to capture the complex cognitive processes occurring in her mind at the time she wrote her story.

Philosophical issues aside, here is a great video of Helen and her teacher Anne Sullivan:

Thanks to tomble for the link.


[1] Russell, B. Analysis of Mind
[2] Hume
[3] Martin. C.B. & Deutscher M. (1966) Remembering. The Philosophical Review. 75(2). 161-196


This is such a coincidence. Kristy and I were just talking about Helen Keller because I was relating a story about Earl Conee making a comment about Helen Keller. Lots of Helen Keller about.

(BTW, I think you meant "deaf, dumb, and blind" not "deaf, dumb, and mute".)
Heh. It's lovely to think of you guys sitting around chatting. Miss you! :)

[Thanks for the edit! Fixed now]
That's an incredible video! Helen's reactions to Anne's speech are beautiful; the obvious joy in understanding another person.

What is also interesting is the way in which Helen reacts; the smile seems universal. Where/how did she learn to smile? It seems to be a universal human phenomenon. Desmond Morris talked a lot about it in Manwatching. Describing it as inbuilt seems a bit naff, but there is evidently something powerfully emotive in the facial display of an emotion that could not be copied.
Wittgenstein says that recognizing memory itself would require something like what you're calling Cryptomnesia (which must have some relation to gist memory?) -- you recognize something as a memory because you remember what a memory is like.

Paul Gilroy, in the New Yorker profile of him, said that what interested him about writing the Bourne movies was the idea of a hero who has total amnesia but lots of strange, assassin skills, and who tries to work out who he is from those skills.

Hobbes said memory was the decay of vibrations of perception, like waves after the storm. (Burke picks up the image,)
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