F, G, 2
Source amnesia is something that most, if not all, people experience in their lifetimes. Because of how the human brain works, repetition becomes one of the most effective ways to emphasize an idea over time, and unless it is thought of in relation to the original context enough, it may lose the connection to how it was learned, often leading to the idea that “I think I read it somewhere.…” In some cases, facts may be misremembered or the source may be misremembered. In other cases, pure fiction may become part of someone’s memory or false memories may be created because of the strength of the repetition and the emphasis on the actions.1
In fact, this is how many urban legends are started and maintain a presence in the cultures in which they exist: Somebody hears something— or thinks they do—and attributes it to an obscure relation through which it may or may not be able to be verified.2 Another important qualification to the development of an urban legend is that it must make sense in the culture and to those who spread the information— if it is truly unbelievable, it will not be believed and will not be passed along.3 A common attribute with information that falls victim to source amnesia as well.4 Other misattributions may take place as well: One might even confuse what a famous person had said with something an imitator of that person said (specifically citing the power of Tina Fey’s mocking of Sarah Palin on many Saturday Night Live skits during the 2008 election season).
Many political figures use source amnesia to help spread ideas helpful to themselves or harmful to their opponents that may or may not actually be true.5 This approach may be particularly effective because of the potential for memory manipulation that occurs even when refuting the idea. As with R. David Lankes’ personal story in the Knowledge Creation Thread, this may occur even with the most astute of researchers and students while performing research, and they may not notice the error until it has been pointed out by other people. At this point, the citation may have already been seen by others and has already become a resource that may, in the future, be further cited with the same incorrect information and citations. While the citations may be checked by some researchers, others may simply take the researcher’s reputation for granted and assume that the citations are correct. In this way, source amnesia can become contagious and may, in fact, spread through even the best-intentioned members of a field.
With the rise of electronic resources, can librarians and database managers help monitor and correct erroneous citations caused by source amnesia? It may be one of the few ways to prevent the spread of the erroneous information and incorrect citations. Perhaps if an author or a publisher is notified and a retraction is printed it could be annotated to the original article’s citation in the database. If this does not work, how else could the external effects of source amnesia be limited? What obligation do librarians have to prevent source amnesia from affecting academic writings? Whose responsibility is it to teach this carefulness to students without overstepping the boundaries of standard librarian values? Whose responsibility is it to monitor retractions and corrections so erroneous citations do not pass through another level of writings?
1. Sugimoto, H. (nd.). Source amnesia, fantasy blends reality. Evl: electronic visualization laboratory. University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from http://www.evl.uic.edu/sugimoto/memSrc.html
2. Whipps, H. (2006, August 27). Urban legends: How they start and why they persist. LiveScience: Science, Technology, Health & Environmental News. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/060827_urban_legends.html (Note: This page no longer exists.)
4. Want, S., & Aamodt, S. (June 27, 2008). Your brain lies to you. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/opinion/27aamodt.html
5. Barber, T. (July 2, 2008). Sarkozy and source amnesia. Brussels Blog. Financial Times. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from http://blogs.ft.com/brusselsblog/2008/07/sarkozy- and-source-amnesia
Anonymous. (2009, April 4). Source amnesia and its political pertinence. Politics, Religion, Science, Philosophy, Health: The Fact of My Ignorance. Retrieved September 27, 2009, from http://thefactofmyignorance.com/politics/source-amnesia-and-its-political- pertinence
Annotation: This blog post, as it says in its entry title, examines the political ramifications of source amnesia manipulation and political tactics that utilize the tendency toward source amnesia. It even describes how harmful it may be for news reports and articles to present controversial ideas in sensationalistic ways and then refute them at the end of the article.
Bornstein, R. F. (1999). Source amnesia, misattribution, and the power of unconscious perceptions and memories. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 16(2), 155–178.
Annotation: This article explains the power of source amnesia and unconscious images and why it is difficult to counteract these types of misattributions. Although psychoanalysts may be able to break through previous mental blocks against memories, the power of repeated information remains distinctly powerful, and implicit memory may affect preference and recognition.
Source amnesia. (2003, March 23). Retrieved September 27, 2009, from http://everything2.com/title/source+amnesia
Annotation: This website gives a basic definition of source amnesia while also describing the courtroom science implications of how a person’s distant memories can be manipulated through suggestion. For example, a clinical therapist may be able to “uncover” a person’s “repressed memories” through repeated sessions with intense questioning, but there is also a good chance that the “victim” has become susceptible to suggestion and the questioning led him or her to believe he or she was abused in some way. This may be good reason to be careful wording interview questions and have even larger implications for how librarians may present information to patrons.