Dear Word Detective: I’ve been looking all over the internet but can’t seem to find a precise answer to explain the origins of the word “engram.” According to the Church of Scientology, it is a word “discovered” by their founder L. Ron Hubbard. But I could have sworn I’d seen it used in science fiction novels published long before it was ever mentioned in “Dianetics.” I’ve heard it in Doctor Who, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, various classic science fiction novels, and pretty much any geek reference I can think of. Not only that, but in many dictionaries, it’s defined as a word used in psychology. If L. Ron Hubbard did invent the word, I don’t know why psychology would be so quick to adopt it, given Hubbard’s well-known hatred of psychology. I would love it if you could explain the true origins of that word so at long last I’ll know for sure whether it’s truly science, or just science fiction! — Ike.
Oh boy, Scientology. I think I’m gonna need a new email address. But I think I can clear up your questions fairly easily. As far as I can tell, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, never claimed to have actually invented the word “engram,” although he did eventually use it to mean something a bit different than what it had theretofore meant.
“Engram” originated as a term in neuropsychology meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “a memory-trace; a permanent and heritable physical change in the nerve tissue of the brain, posited to account for the existence of memory.” The term was coined in the early 20th century by Richard Semon, a German biologist, who believed that as memories form they leave actual lasting physical traces or changes in the brain, which are then re-activated in recalling the memory. The word “engram” is taken from the Greek “en” (in) plus “gramma” (letter), giving the sense of something “written into” the brain. Much energy was apparently devoted in the following decades to poking around the brain looking for these “engrams,” but today neuroscientists generally agree that memory is a far more complex and diffuse system than simply things being written into the brain.
Evidently Hubbard, in his “Dianetics the Modern Science of Mental Health” (1950), originally used the word “engram” in the standard neuropsychological sense of “memory,” but later refined the concept to define “engram” specifically as a sort of stored moment of psychic pain which must be uncovered and resolved (in a process Scientology calls “auditing”) in order for the person to live a happy life.