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Plagiarism, Memory and the Justice System: New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books is currently available campus-wide to members of the University community. If you look up the title in the Case University Libraries’ eJournal Portal, coverage is indicated only from 1999 to the present. But it appears that The New York Review of Books has now extended online coverage back to its first issue (1963) in honor of its 50th Anniversary. Here is a review of a current article.

Speak, Memory,” by Oliver Sacks, appears in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books (February 21, 2013). It is an article that I think will be of interest to members of the Law School community. It first attracted my attention because it discusses distortions of memory. It evolves, however, into a discussion of the mechanisms of the brain that can result in unconscious plagiarism. Sacks is a professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine, and the author of a number of popular collections of case histories including the well-known Awakenings (1973), on which the 1990 feature film was based. In the article, he describes how false memories are created in the brain, especially with information that impresses us so much that it becomes assimilated. Unfortunately, the brain’s “[i]ndifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences.” If our brain “tagged” the sources of all such experiences, it would be “overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.” Particularly entertaining is the collection of famous anecdotes of unintended plagiarism Sacks relates: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord;” Helen Keller’s The Frost King; Twain’s dedication in Innocents Abroad, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Sacks uses these to demonstrate the memory-making mechanism of the brain. The accusation of plagiarism against Helen Keller resulted in Mark Twain’s letter to her with his famous quote: “As if there was much of anything in any human utterance except plagiarism!” Sacks ends the article with a brief overview of how the brain’s mechanism that results in memory distortion plays out in the justice system. He summarizes Elizabeth Loftus’ research on false memories in eyewitness testimony.