Genetic memory (psychology)

In psychology, genetic memory is a theorized phenomenon in which certain kinds of memories could be inherited, being present at birth in the absence of any associated sensory experience, and that such memories could be incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.[1]

While theories about the inheritance of specific memories have been thoroughly disproven, some researchers have asserted that more general associations formed by previous generations can pass from generation to generation through the genome. For instance, experts today are still divided on how to interpret a study which suggested that mice may be able to inherit an association between certain smells and a fear response formed by previous generations of mice. Contemporary theories are based on the idea that the common experiences of a species can become incorporated into that species' 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.


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.[citation needed] 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] However, there is scientific evidence of a gene for perfect pitch which is more common in Asian countries where pitch is critical to the meaning of a spoken word.[2]


Neuroscientific research on mice suggests that some experiences can influence subsequent generations. In a 2013 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.[citation needed]

Historical viewsEdit

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]

In fictionEdit

Although the theory of genetic memory retains little scientific credibility, it continues to figure prominently in speculative fiction.

  • In the 1975 Doctor Who episode The Ark in Space, an insectoid species known as the Wirrn possess a form of race memory as part of a hive mind. Also in the 1984 episode Frontios, Turlough demonstrates the race memory after a nervous breakdown.[original research?]
  • The Assassin's Creed series of video games are framed as genetic memories of the player's ancestors that are decoded and rendered by a machine called Animus. The goal of gameplay is to retrieve memories by reliving an ancestor's experience as closely as possible.[9][10]
  • In Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, the Neanderthals are able to tap into their shared genetic memory via hallucinogenic herbal concoctions created by their medicine men and women, and sometimes even without using the drug. It is explained in the novel that while this allows them access to a vast array of survival skills learned over thousands of years of slow evolution, they lack the ingenuity and innovation to advance beyond what they already know, and are thus doomed to die out as a species. The Cro-Magnon, who in the novel do not have access to their genetic memories, instead possess a more developed frontal lobe and are thus able to reason and deduct at a level far beyond the Neanderthal.[original research?]
  • In the movie 7aum Arivu, Bodhidharma (of the 5th or 6th century, who knows hypnotism, martial arts, and cures to a plethora of diseases) is brought back to life in the modern day through a descendant of his by a genetic researcher by genetic memory concept to save his country.[original research?]
  • In the 2001 Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda episode "The Devil Take the Hindmost", there are colonists called the Hajira who genetically possess all their parents' memories up to the time they are born.[original research?]
  • James White's novel The Dream Millennium uses genetic memory to radically explore the problems of the human condition. The protagonist, a doctor hibernating on an interstellar voyage, dreams the lives of Earth ancestors from a primordial microorganism to his own father.[11]
  • In the TV show Stargate SG-1, an alien race known as the Goa'uld possess and transfer their knowledge via genetic memory, so any newborn goa'uld will possess all the memories and knowledge of their ancestors.[11]
  • In the film Alien Resurrection, the cloned Ellen Ripley has memories of the past suggested to be a result of genetic crossing with the aliens. When she is shown a picture of a child it is implied that she is remembering the girl Newt from the film Aliens.
  • In CW's Supergirl, Brainiac 5 warns interrogators that his species possesses "ancestral" memory, and that his ancestors were "collectors, conquerors". After repeatedly being struck in the head, his programming defaults to that of ancestors, sealing off his emotional awareness, causing him to behave much in the way of ancestor and Superman villain "Braniac".[original research?]
  • Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels features female mystics known as Bene Gesserit who can access a detailed but incomplete genetic memory of humanity. The arrival of male counterparts who can access memory on the Y chromosome is central to the series.[12]
  • The Quebecois movie "L'origine des espèces" ("On My Mother's Side"), by Dominic Goyer, addresses the subject. A mother invents a new identity and raises him away from his ancestors to prevent her child from becoming like the other men in her family. But when the son discover the truth about his origins, his own genes arise and transform him. But in the end, his knowledge will be stronger than his DNA and the light will triumph.[original research?]
  • In The X-Files episode "Aubrey," the granddaughter of a serial killer inherits his memories.[original research?]
  • In Jack London's Before Adam, the narrator's tale is a recollection of genetic memories, although he uses the term "racial memory."[original research?]
  • In the extended cut of Jurassic World Dominion, during the Biosyn incident, the Jurassic Park veteran Tyrannosaurus, known as Rexy, seemed to relive a genetic memory inherited from her ancestor who was killed in a fight with a Giganotosaurus 65 million years ago.
  • According to a tweet by Godzilla: King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty, the MonsterVerse iteration of Mothra will inherit all the memories of all previous Mothras.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ Deutsch, Diana; Henthorn, Trevor (2004). "Absolute Pitch, Speech, and Tone Language: Some Experiments and a Proposed Framework". Music Perception. 21 (3): 339–356. doi:10.1525/mp.2004.21.3.339 – via ResearchGate.
  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.
  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 (ed.). 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; Gerd B. Müller (2003). Environment, Development, and Evolution: Toward a Synthesis. MIT Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-262-08319-1.
  9. ^ Alvarado, Sebastian (11 April 2012). "The Science Fact Animating Assassin's Creed's Animus". Kotaku. Retrieved 4 December 2022.
  10. ^ Lizardi, Ryan (2022). Existential Science Fiction (hardcover ed.). Lexington Books. pp. xii, 111, 115–127. ISBN 978-1-7936-4735-1.
  11. ^ a b The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vol. 2. 2005.
  12. ^ Stevens, Benjamin Eldon; Rogers (2015). Classical Traditions in Science Fiction.

Further readingEdit

  • Alan Bullock; 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.