The accused Harvard plagiarist doesn't have a photographic memory. No one does.
Viswanathan is hardly the first plagiarist to claim unconscious influence from memory's depths. George Harrison said he never intended to rip off the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." He had just forgotten he'd ever heard it. And when a young Helen Keller cribbed from Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King," Canby herself said, "Under the circumstances, I do not see how any one can be so unkind as to call it a plagiarism; it is a wonderful feat of memory." Keller claimed she was forever after terrified. "I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book," she wrote. "It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind."
Psychologists label this kind of inadvertent appropriation cryptomnesia, and have captured the phenomenon in the laboratory. In one study, researchers had subjects play Boggle against a computer and then afterward try to recreate a list of the words they themselves found. Far more often then expected, the researchers found that their subjects would claim words found by the computer opponent as their own. Even if cryptomnesia is a real memory glitch that happens to all of us from time to time, however, it's hard to figure how it could lead to the involuntary swiping of 29 different passages.
Then again, who knows, maybe Viswanathan really does have a photographic memory. She could be the first (or second). Earlier this year, a group of memory researchers at the University of California-Irvine published an astonishing article about a woman called AJ who can apparently remember every day of her life since childhood. Such people weren't supposed to exist. Her case totally upends everything we thought we knew about the limits of human memory. The scientists even had to coin a new name for her disorder, hyperthymestic syndrome. If Viswanathan really wants to stick to her story, I know a few scientists who'd probably like to meet her. She might even be able to get a syndrome named after her.
Correction, April 28, 2005: Kim Peek's name was originally misspelled. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) May 8, 2006: The original paragraph stated incorrectly that John Merritt was skeptical of Charles Stromeyer III's claims. It also stated that 15 people who took Merritt's test came into his lab. In fact, he visited them at their homes. Return to the corrected paragraph.
In addition to being the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer is the author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which grew out of a story he wrote for Slate.
Image of brain scan on the Slate home page © Howard Sochurek/Corbis.