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Human memory (from Greekμνήμη mnémē "memory, recollection") consists of the ability to recall what was experienced in the past, albeit usually only in a distorted form. A disturbance of the ability to remember is called amnesia.

From an anthroposophical point of view, the soul creates the basis for the formation of memory: "As the preserver of the past, the soul continually gathers treasures for the spirit." (Lit.:GA 9, p. 66) Beyond this, however, memory is also very essentially connected with the living activity of the etheric body and very specifically with the organic activity of the physical body. Seen in this light, the human memory is more than the mere encoding, storage and retrieval of information, which is also possible by technical means. Without the conscious ability to remember, through which he can at least in broad strokes willfully survey his biography at any time, man could not form and maintain a healthy I-consciousness. This also distinguishes him from the animals. Rudolf Steiner has given very detailed descriptions of the process and significance of human memory formation.

The Activity of the Soul as the Basis of Memory Formation

How the formation of memory is connected with the activity of the soul is described by Rudolf Steiner in his fundamental writing "Theosophy". He emphasises very emphatically that the visualised idea which I recall to my consciousness is by no means the same as the perception which is immediately present before my senses. It disappears from consciousness as soon as the act of perception is over. But it leaves traces inside, from which the memory-imagination can be built up later. The ideas evoked by the memory are always newly formed and not the retained old ones. As a rule, they are far paler and less detailed than the immediate perception and often also distorted or falsified by an active imagination.

„Let us first consider memory. How does it originate? Evidently in quite a different way from sensation or perception. Without the eye I cannot have the sensation blue, but by means of the eye alone I do not have the remembrance of blue. If the eye is to give me this sensation now, a blue object must stand before it. The body would allow all impressions to sink back again into oblivion were it not for the fact that while the present image is being formed through the act of perception, something is also taking place in the relationship between the outer world and the soul. This activity brings about certain results within man enabling him through processes within himself to form a new image of what, in the first place, was brought about by an image from outside. Anyone who has acquired practice in observing the life of the soul will see the opinion to be quite erroneous that holds that the perception a man has today is the same he recalls tomorrow through memory, it having meanwhile remained somewhere or other within him. No, the perception I now have is a phenomenon that passes away with the “now.” When recollection occurs, a process takes place in me that is the result of something that happened in the relation between the external world and me quite apart from the arousing of the present visualization. The mental image called forth through remembrance is not an old preserved visualization, but a new one. Recollection consists in the fact, not that a visualization can be revived, but that we can present to ourselves again and again what has been perceived. What reappears is something different from the original visualization. This remark is made here because in the domain of spiritual science it is necessary that more accurate conceptions should be formed than is the case in ordinary life, and indeed, also in ordinary science.

I remember; that is, I experience something that is itself no longer present. I unite a past experience with my present life. This is the case with every remembrance. Let us say, for instance, that I meet a man and, because I met him yesterday, recognize him. He would be a complete stranger to me if I were unable to unite the picture that I made yesterday through my perception with my impression of him today. Today's image of him is given me through my perception, that is to say, through my sense organs. Who, then, conjures up yesterday's picture in my soul? It is conjured up by the same being in me that was present during my experience yesterday, and that is also present today. In the previous explanations this being has been called soul. Were it not for this faithful preserver of the past, each external impression would always be new to us. It is certain that the soul imprints upon the body, as though by means of a sign, the process through which something becomes a recollection. Yet it is the soul itself that must make this impression and then perceive what it has made, just as it perceives something external. Thus the soul is the preserver of memory.“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 65f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.