Richard Semon

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Richard Semon

Richard Wolfgang Semon (22 August 1859, Berlin – 27 December 1918, Munich) was a German zoologist and evolutionary biologist, a memory researcher who believed in the inheritance of acquired characters and applied this to social evolution.


Semon proposed psycho-physiological parallelism according to which every psychological state corresponds to alterations in the nerves. His ideas of the mneme (based on the Greek goddess, Mneme, the muse of memory) were developed early in the 20th century. The mneme represented the memory of an external-to-internal experience. The resulting "mnemic trace" (or "engram") would be revived when an element resembling a component of the original complex of stimuli was encountered. Semon’s mnemic principle was based upon how stimuli produce a "permanent record,... written or engraved on the irritable substance," i.e. upon cellular material energistically predisposed to such inscription (Semon 1921, p. 24).[1]


Semon found evidence in the way that different parts of the body relate to each other involuntarily, such as "reflex spasms, co-movements, sensory radiations," to infer distribution of "engraphic influence." He also took inventive recourse to phonography, the "mneme machine," to explain the uneven distribution and revival of engrams.

Semon's book Die Mneme directly influenced the Mnemosyne project of the idiosyncratic art historian Aby Warburg.[2]

Despite the similarities in nomenclature, the concept of the meme, coined by Richard Dawkins, refers to a separate concept defined as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture" (Dawkins, 1976).


In 1918 in Munich, Semon committed suicide wrapped in a German flag allegedly because he was depressed by Germany's defeat after World War I. [3]


  1. ^ Semon, Richard. "Chapter II. Engraphic Action of Stimuli on the Individual". The Mneme. London: George Allen & Unwin. p. 24; trans by Louis Simon. 
  2. ^ Matthew Rampley, The Remembrance of Things Past. On Aby M. Warburg and Walter Benjamin. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, p. 88.
  3. ^ Goeschel page 11


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