In this article I elucidate the scientific underpinnings of the engram and how it was mythologized and used in Dianetics — a mind management system which later became the basis for the Church of Scientology.
First, let’s explore what an Engram in Scientology is. According to scientology.org:
[E]ngrams are a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail, of every perception present in a moment of partial or full “unconsciousness.”
This is an example of an engram: A woman is knocked down by a blow to the face. She is rendered “unconscious.” She is kicked in the side and told she is a faker, that she is no good, that she is always changing her mind. A chair is overturned in the process. A faucet is running in the kitchen. A car is passing in the street outside.
The engram contains a running record of all these perceptions.
The Encyclopedia Britannica has this more concise definition of the engram in Scientology: “a mental image of a past experience that produces a negative emotional effect in an individual’s life.”
Scientology.org elucidates further that our “reactive minds” cause us to respond adversely (and unwittingly) when secondary triggers found in the engram also coincide with our present reality. Essentially this means that we are never reacting to what’s actually happening during a situation, we’re reacting to some past event that elements in the present situation are triggering. And the triggers can be ubiquitous and trivial — as trivial as a combination of a faucet running or a car passing by. This means, that chances are, if something or someone is upsetting us, we’re not actually being upset by them, but by something that happened in our past and of which we are unconscious. (If you’re thinking “this sounds a lot like EST,” you’d be right. Erner Werhard does borrow this idea from Scientology.)
Scientology promises us ways to eliminate this “reactive mind” and attain a state it calls clear. This process begins during the primary recruitment mechanism of the Church — an interview process called auditing, which claims to identify and help eliminate these engrams.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to comment on the effectiveness of auditing, however, it is not entirely dissimilar from other processes for self-exploration and mind management, such as those we see in CBT, hypnotherapy and Tad James’ Timeline Therapy(TM), all of which can affect profound shifts in consciousness after one session. One sizeable difference is that auditing is now a recruitment mechanism for the Church. Another is the use of a device intended to detect physiological indicators of stress during the auditing process.
What’s interesting is that Dianetics took a theorized scientific concept — the Engram — and proposed it as a given. It said that engrams absolutely do exist and, tying them to trauma, that they interfere with our clear-seeing of everyday reality on an unconscious level. These engrams, in the Scientologist sense, are gremlins of consciousness. This differs in detail from the scientific literature on the engram, although L. Ron Hubbard, like any excellent science fiction writer, did base the story of the engram that Scientology tells on actual scientific concepts and research.
The concept of the engram entered scientific discourse with the publication of Richard Semon’s 1921 book The Mneme. In 1950, the same year that Dianetics came out, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Karl Lashely, published “In Search of the Engram.” In this paper he concluded, based on 30 years of experimenting with rats, that there was no evidence in favor of the existence of the engram, and that memories were instead retained throughout cortical regions in the brain, rather than being localized in specialized areas.
In 1952, however, Wilder Penfield published “Memory Mechanisms,” a report on his accidental finding that electrical stimulation of the temporal cortices of his epileptic patients, induced in them the total recall of certain memories. Contrary to the Scientologist definitions, these memories contained “not the exact photographic or phonographic reproduction of past scenes and events,” but rather “of what the patient saw and heard and felt and understood”(1). In 1968, Penfield made a case for “Engrams in the Human Brain” elaborating on his accidental findings 15 years earlier.
Today, especially since the cultivation of optogenetics, scientists have been able to localize not only which regions in the brain are responsible for which types of memory, but to also find neurons that specialize in certain types of memory as well. For example, neurons in the the CA-1 region of the Hippocampus have been found to be implicated in social memory. Meanwhile, the neurons that make changing the emotional valence of certain memories possible, were also located.
The neurology of memory is far more complex than was originally fathomed in the 1920s and envisioned in Dianetics. Neverthless, Hubbard can be credited for associating trauma with the neurological vehicle that makes its unconscious retention in the brain possible and ever-present.
Penfield’s accidental finding among his epileptic patients does suggest that our brains may retain at least some snippets from our stream of consciousness, that can be brought to full awareness without the degradation we normally experience when recalling distant memories. Penfield’s patients were epileptics, had their skulls open and were administered direct electrical stimulation in order to experience the reactivation of their memories.
This is certainly not the same as the claim that a conversational therapeutic technique could elicit the same kinds of activation, let alone a clearing of trapped traumas. Nonetheless, the very prospect that our brains are potentially recording some, or even all, of our stream of consciousness, in detail, may hold the key to explaining how emotional healing works, not only in Dianetics, but in a variety of modalities that rely on recalling traumatic memories and “releasing” them. Such modalities include hypnotherapy, the Neuro-Emotional Technique, CBT and NLP, among others.
(1) Penfiled, W. Cited in Berne, Eric. “Introduction.” Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry. Hauraki Publishing. Kindle Edition.