What is an Engram?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An engram is a term much used in Scientology though the concept predates the founding of Scientology and is actually based in medicine. The term was initially invented by Richard Semon, a German zoologist and biologist. Semon used the term to describe a stored impression or stimulus impression. Under certain circumstances the impression, could be reawakened. This is much in keeping with Freudian ideas of memories stored deep within the mind, which could be brought slowly into consciousness in order to keep them from driving current activities and thought patterns.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

L. Ron Hubbard used the term in Scientology, though he initially called the engram a Norn, to refer to a mental picture created of a past moment that involved severe emotional pain. To Hubbard the pain was not readily accessible by the conscious mind, but just as Freud states, it needed to be confronted to help the person along the path of self-knowledge and total consciousness. Even though Hubbard dismissed psychology as pseudoscience, the use of engram shows he leans heavily on the concept. What differs is his means of access to the mental picture.

The current definition of the engram by Scientologists is that it is a complete picture that recalls all details of a traumatic event. A person would, if they could access all details, be able to remember everything that was occurring at the time: the way things smelled, the things that were said, the expressions on other people’s faces. This trace memory would subconsciously influence the reactive mind, creating feelings of illness, emotional or physical pain, or sudden negatively directed feelings. Events in the present can stimulate engrams causing people to suddenly have negative and unwanted symptoms that seem to have no explanation. An example might be the following:

A child was screamed at by her mother for cutting some of the roses in the mom’s garden. As an adult, this woman gets a headache every time she smells roses, leading her to conclude she must be allergic to the scent. Scientology would explain this as the result of the engram working subconsciously. Should the engram be confronted and brought to light, then theoretically the smell of roses would no longer give this woman a headache.

Psychologists in present day would likely disagree with Hubbard’s definition of engram, especially in his contention that this mental picture wholly and entirely contains the event of trauma. Most agree that even if memories are uncovered by techniques like hypnosis they are always colored by the individual’s perception. Furthermore, it’s possible to recover false memories, events that never happened, suggesting that Hubbard’s definition does not fully account for the complexities of the mind. It does however have a basis in psychology, which is ironic given Hubbard’s attack of the discipline.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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