Genetic memory (psychology)

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For other uses, see Genetic memory (disambiguation).

In psychology, genetic memory is a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.[1] It is based on the idea that common experiences of a species become incorporated into its genetic code, not by a Lamarckian process that encodes specific memories but by a much vaguer tendency to encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli.

Genetic memory is invoked to explain the racial memory postulated by Carl Jung. In Jungian psychology, racial memories are posited memories, feelings, and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a "collective unconscious".[2]

Genetic memory and language[edit]

Language, in the modern view, is considered to be only a partial product of genetic memory. The fact that humans can have languages is a property of the nervous system that is present at birth, and thus phylogenetic in character. However, perception of the particular set of phonemes specific to a native language only develops during ontogeny. There is no genetic predisposition towards the phonemic makeup of any single language. Children in a particular country are not genetically predisposed to speak the languages of that country, adding further weight to the assertion that genetic memory is not Lamarckian.[1]

Genetic memory and trauma, phobias, and neuropsychiatric disorders[edit]

Neuroscientific research on mice suggests that some experiences can influence subsequent generations. In a study,[3][4] mice trained to fear a specific smell passed on their trained aversion to their descendants, which were then extremely sensitive and fearful of the same smell, even though they had never encountered it, nor been trained to fear it.

Changes in brain structure were also found. The researchers concluded that "The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations."[5]

Scientists speculate that similar genetic mechanisms could be linked with phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, as well as other neuropsychiatric disorders, in humans.

Historical views[edit]

In contrast to the modern view, in the 19th century, biologists considered genetic memory to be a fusion of memory and heredity, and held it to be a Lamarckian mechanism. Ribot in 1881, for example, held that psychological and genetic memory were based upon a common mechanism, and that the former only differed from the latter in that it interacted with consciousness.[6] Hering and Semon developed general theories of memory, the latter inventing the idea of the engram and concomitant processes of engraphy and ecphory. Semon divided memory into genetic memory and central nervous memory.[7]

This 19th-century view is not wholly dead, albeit that it stands in stark contrast to the ideas of neo-Darwinism. In Modern Psychology, genetic memory is generally considered a false idea. However, biologists such as Stuart A. Newman and Gerd B. Müller have contributed to the idea in the 21st century.[8]


Some parapsychologists[who?] have postulated that specific experience is encoded in genes, and proposed this as an explanation for past life regression. However, most parapsychologists generally dismiss this, on grounds that in those cases where past life regression has been considered, the subjects have no genetic link with the people whose lives they are considered to have regressed to; and that the idea is unsound as a mechanism for explaining how events could be recalled from past lives of people at points in those lives after they had children. Parapsychologists generally agree with the biological view that genetic traits are dispositional — i.e. that they merely encode a disposition to react in certain ways to environmental stimuli, and not actual memory or experience.[9][10][11]

In fiction[edit]

  • In the Assassin's Creed universe, genetic memory is decoded by a virtual machine called the Animus. The Animus decodes and renders memories in a three-dimensional field, allowing the reliving of previous events and the discovery of hidden information.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rodolfo R. Llinas (2001). I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. MIT Press. pp. 190–191. ISBN 0-262-62163-0. 
  2. ^ Reber, A.S & Reber, E. Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, 3rd ed. Penguin ISBN 0-14-051451-1.
  3. ^ Dias, Brian G; Ressler, Kerry J (2013). "Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations". Nature Neuroscience 17 (1): 89–96. doi:10.1038/nn.3594. PMC 3923835. PMID 24292232. Lay summaryNew Scientist (December 1, 2013). 
  4. ^ Callaway, Ewen (2013). "Fearful memories haunt mouse descendants". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14272. 
  5. ^ Gallagher, James. "'Memories' pass between generations". BBC. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Louis D. Matzel (2002). "Learning Mutants". In Harold E. Pashler. Steven's Handbook of Experimental Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. p. 201. ISBN 0-471-65016-1. 
  7. ^ Timothy L. Strickler (1978). Functional Osteology and Myology of the Shoulder in the Chiroptera. Karger Publishers. p. 325. ISBN 3-8055-2645-8. 
  8. ^ Brian Keith Hall, Roy Douglas Pearson, and Gerd B. Müller (2003). Environment, Development, and Evolution: Toward a Synthesis. MIT Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-262-08319-1. 
  9. ^ Robert F. Almeder (1992). Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life After Death. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-8226-3016-8. 
  10. ^ Susan J. Blackmore (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. 60. ISBN 019286212X. 
  11. ^ John Donnelly (1994). Language, Metaphysics, and Death. Fordham University Press. p. 356. ISBN 0-8232-1562-8. 
  12. ^ The Science Fact Animating Assassin's Creed's Animus. April 11, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass (1977). "Genetic memory". The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought. Harper & Row. p. 258. 
  • Raymond Joseph Corsini (1999). "Genetic memory". The Dictionary of Psychology. Psychology Press. p. 410. ISBN 158391028X.  — Note that the definition talks of "information based upon" learning and experience, rather than about learning and experience themselves.Z