Biology:Organic memory

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Organic memory is a discredited biological theory, held in the late nineteenth century before the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics. The theory held the controversial notion that all organic matter contains memory.[1][2]


The German biologist Richard Semon linked organic memory to heredity.

German physiologist Ewald Hering first suggested the idea of organic memory in an 1870 lecture for the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna. Hering took influence from the idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics and suggested that memories could be passed on through generations by germ cells.[3]

Variants of the organic memory theory were proposed by advocates of Lamarckian evolution such as Samuel Butler, Ernst Haeckel, Eugenio Rignano, Théodule-Armand Ribot and Richard Semon.[4][5][6] Proponents such as Semon connected the theory of organic memory to hereditary phenomena.[7]

According to historian Petteri Pietikainen:

Semon argued not only that information is encoded into memory and that there are 'memory traces' (engrams) or after-effects of stimulation that conserve the changes in the nervous system, he also contended that these changes in the brain (that is, engrams) are inherited. Semon's mneme-theory fell into disrepute largely because in a Lamarckian fashion it proposed that memory units are passed from one generation to another.[8]

Ideas of organic memory were popular amongst biologists and psychologists from 1870 to 1918. The theory later lost scientific legitimacy as it yielded no reliable data and advances in genetics made the theory untenable.[9][10]


  1. Draaisma, Douwe. (2000). Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind. Cambridge University Press. p. 83. ISBN:0-521-65024-0
  2. Anastasio, Thomas J; Ehrenberger, Kristen Ann; Watson, Patrick. (2012). Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels. MIT Press. pp. 44-45. ISBN:978-0-262-01704-6
  3. Stanley, Finger. (1994). Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations Into Brain Function. Oxford University Press. p. 338. ISBN:978-0-262-01704-6
  4. Otis, Laura. (1994). Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 10-34. ISBN:0-8032-3561-5
  5. Akavia, Naamah. (2013). Subjectivity in Motion: Life, Art, and Movement in the Work of Hermann Rorschach. Routledge. p. 44. ISBN:978-0-415-53623-3
  6. Nikulin, Dmitri. (2015). Memory: A History. Oxford University Press. p. 241. ISBN:978-0-19-979384-6
  7. Schacter, Daniel L. (2001). Forgotten Ideas, Neglected Pioneers: Richard Semon and the Story of Memory. Routledge. p. 108. ISBN:978-1-84169-052-0
  8. Pietikainen, Petteri. (2007). Alchemists of Human Nature: Psychological Utopianism in Gross, Jung, Reich and Fromm. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN:978-1-85196-923-4
  9. Landsberg, Alison. (2004). Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 7. ISBN:978-0-231-12927-5
  10. Richards, Graham. (2002). Putting Psychology in Its Place: A Critical Historical Overview. Routledge. pp. 133-134. ISBN:1-84169-233-6

Further reading

  • Otis, Laura. (1994). Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN:0-8032-3561-5