Semon, Richard (1859-1918)

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SEMON, RICHARD (1859-1918)

Richard Wolfgang Semon is a relatively unknown but nevertheless important figure in the history of research on learning and memory. Although little noticed by both his contemporaries and memory researchers today, Semon anticipated numerous modern theories and, perhaps ironically, created one of the best known terms in the memory literature, engram.

Semon was born in Berlin on August 22, 1859. His father, Simon, was a stockbroker, and the Semon family became part of the upper echelon of Berlin Jewish society during Richard's childhood. Simon's severe losses in the stock market crash of 1873 imposed a much humbler lifestyle on the family. Semon's older brother, Felix, left Germany after receiving a medical degree and practiced in England, where he became a historic pioneer of clinical and scientific laryngology.

As a child, Richard Semon expressed a strong interest in biology and zoology. He attended the University of Jena—a major European center of biological research—and received a doctorate in zoological studies in 1883 and a medical degree in 1886. While at Jena, Semon was influenced heavily by the famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, whose monistic philosophy stressed the importance of attempting to unify diverse biological phenomena within a single set of theoretical principles.

Semon's career as an evolutionary biologist developed rapidly during the 1890s. Shortly after assuming an associate professorship at Jena in 1891, he led a major expedition to Australia in search of the "missing link." The expedition was responsible for the discovery of 207 new species and twenty-four new genera. When he returned from Australia in 1893, Semon continued his research at Jena until 1897, when his life changed dramatically. He became involved with Maria Krehl, then wife of an eminent professor of pathology at Jena, Ludolph Krehl. The ensuing scandal in Jena led to Semon's resignation. He and Maria moved to Munich, where he began working as a private scholar, and the pair eventually married.

Semon wrote two major books on memory during the next twenty years: Die mneme (1904), translated as The Mneme (1921), and Die mnemischen Empfindungen (1909), translated as Mnemic Psychology (1923). His work attracted little attention, and Semon's acute dismay about his lack of recognition is evident in letters written to his colleague and ally, the Swiss psychiatrist August Forel (Schacter, 1982). Depressed over the neglect of his work, troubled by Germany's role in World War I, and shattered by his wife's death from cancer, Semon took his own life on December 27, 1918.

Theory of Memory

A full appreciation of Semon's ideas about human memory requires a look at the biological context from which they emerged. His first book, Die mneme, embedded human memory a more global theory that broadened the construct of memory to include more than simple remembering of facts, events, and the like. Semon argued for viewing heredity and reproduction as forms of memory that preserved the effects of experience across generations. He referred to the fundamental process that subserved both heredity and everyday memory with a term of his own creation, "Mneme." According to Semon, Mneme is a fundamental organic plasticity that allows the preservation of effects of experience; it is Mneme "which in the organic world links the past and present in a living bond" (1921, p.12).

Semon distinguished among three aspects of the mnemic process that he believed are crucial to the analysis of both everyday memory and of hereditary memory, and he described them with additional terms of his own invention in order to avoid the potentially misleading connotations of ordinary language: engraphy, engram, and ecphory. Engraphy refers to the encoding of information into memory; engram refers to the change in the nervous system—the "memory trace"—that preserves the effects of experience; and ecphory refers to a retrieval process, or "the influences which awaken the mnemic trace or engram out of its latent state into one of manifested activity" (Semon, 1921, p.12). In attempting to apply these constructs to the analysis of hereditary memory—that is, to understanding how the experiences of one organism could somehow influence its progeny—Semon encountered a variety of biological phenomena that led him to place great emphasis on ecphory as a crucial determinant of memory.

Semon's speculative ideas on hereditary memory met with severe criticism because they relied heavily on the discredited doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which had been developed by the French biologist Lamarck (Schacter, 2001). Nevertheless, the concern with ecphoric processes that emerged from this analysis enabled Semon to develop new perspectives on human memory that elaborated without any reference to hereditary phenomena in his second book, Die mnemischen empfindungen. At the time that Semon wrote this book, memory researchers paid almost no attention to the ecphoric or retrieval stage of memory; they were caught up almost entirely with processes occurring at the time of encoding or engraphy (Schacter, 2001; Schacter, Eich, and Tulving, 1978). By contrast, Semon developed a detailed theory of ecphoric processes and argued that succssful ecphory requires that the conditions prevailing at the time of engraphy (i.e., encoding) are partially reinstated at the time of ecphory. He laid great emphasis on this latter idea, elevating it to a "Law of Ecphory." This concern with the relation between conditions of engraphy and ecphory anticipated rather closely such modern notions as the encoding-specificity principle and transfer-appropriate processing.

Semon also developed novel ideas about the beneficial effects of repetition on memory. In contrast to the then widely accepted idea that repetition of a stimulus improves memory by strengthening the preexisting engram of that stimulus, Semon argued that each repetition of a stimulus creates a unique, context-specific engram; at the time of ecphory, the multiple, separate engrams are combined by a resonance process that Semon termed homophony. This multiple-engram approach to repetition effects, with its strong emphasis on ecphoric processes, anticipated a number of recently influential conceptualizations, such as the multiple-trace model developed by Hintzman and colleagues (Schacter et al., 1978).

Notwithstanding the prescience of many of Semon's ideas, his contemporaries ignored his contributions. This neglect may be due to several factors: his theoretical emphasis on ecphoric processes at a time when few were interested, his social isolation as a private scholar without institutional affiliation, and his discredited Lamarckian approach to hereditary memory. Curiously, the one construct developed by Semon that appropirated by subsequent researchers—the engram—did not represent a novel contribution and was one of the less interesting parts of his otherwise innovative theoretical approach.



Schacter, D. L. (2001). Forgotten ideas, neglected pioneers: Richard Semon and the story of memory. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Schacter, D. L., Eich, J. E., and Tulving, E. (1978). Richard Semon's theory of memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 17, 721-743.

Semon, R. (1904). Die Mneme. Leipzig: W. Engelmann.

—— (1909). Die mnemischen empfindungen. Leipzig: W. Engelmann, Leipzig.

—— (1921). The mneme. London: Allen and Unwin.

—— (1923). Mnemic psychology. London: Allen and Unwin.

Daniel L.Schacter