Problems with the Engram Theory
Jeff Jacobsen

1. Conditioning

Conditioning is an alternative explanation of people's behavior to Hubbard's engram theory. I wondered why Hubbard argued that there was no such thing as conditioning (1) until I realized that if conditioning exists, then many activities attributed to engrams could more rationally be attributed to conditioning, and thus, people could receive help elsewhere than from dianetics.

Hubbard even unwittingly provides a good example of conditioning himself. A small fish in shallow, stale waters is bumped and hurt by a larger fish trying to eat him. The small fish got an engram from this occurrence (pain and momentary unconsciousness being present). The small fish is attacked again later in a quite similar manner, and the first engram is "keyed in", thus reinforcing the first engram. From then on, whenever the fish enters stale, shallow waters, he panics and heads elsewhere, even when there is no danger present. (2) This is very similar to Pavlov's experiments with dogs who drooled at the sound of a bell that normally rang only when food was provided. Yet Hubbard claims that Pavlov's dogs "might be trained to do this or that. But it was not conditioning. The dogs went mad because they were given engrams." (3)

From Hubbard's own example of the fish, we can see that some things described as engrams can in fact be better attributed to conditioning. The fish story could work just as well without pain and unconsciousness even being present, thus negating engrams. Were we to continue following the fish around, he may at a later time figure out that stale, shallow waters do not always include dangers, and thus may return to those areas to feed. Conditioning can thus be unlearned, whereas engrams remain until audited out.

This is much more than a game of semantics. Conditioning is a learned pattern of responsive behavior acquired from repetitive stimulation of a certain type. Pavlov's dogs learned that whenever they heard a bell that food became accessible to them. They became accustomed to anticipating food at the sound of the bell, so naturally they salivated at the sound of the bell after a time, even when food did not always thereafter accompany the sound (this works with humans, also). Hubbard's engram theory applied to this case cannot account for such behavior, since there was no pain or unconsciousness present during these experiences, and thus no engrams were created. Conditioning is a danger to Hubbard's engram theory because it is an alternative explanation for certain behaviors. The fish in Hubbard's above example need not have been knocked unconscious or even been in pain to learn to avoid certain areas where it regularly came in contact with an enemy. Pavlov's dogs did not have engrams that made them salivate. Where engrams don't exist, there is no need for dianetics.

Habits are also caused by engrams, according to Hubbard. Habits "can only be changed by those things which change engrams." (4) Habits may be considered a simple form of conditioning where a person unconsciously trains him or herself to perform a certain activity at certain times. A girl, for example, may twirl her hair when she gets nervous. A grownup might bite his nails when he is under stress. If habits are engramic, as Hubbard states, then the only way to stop a habit would be through dianetic auditing. But certainly common sense and life experience teach that this is not the case at all. The girl generally outgrows her hair twirling, and the man can train himself not to bite his nails. There is no need for the engram theory to explain habits, and in fact the engram theory is weakened by the constant experience of people stopping habits without dianetic auditing.

2. The intelligent moron

The reactive mind, says Hubbard, is moronic. It considers everything in an engram to be identical to everything else in the engram. "Recall that the reactive mind can think only on this equation - A=A=A, where the three A's may be respectively a horse, a swear word, and the verb to spit. Spitting is the same as horses is the same as God." (5) Remember this example, where the reactive mind cannot differentiate between a verb, an animal, the deity, and an expletive.

Remember also that the reason engrams cause problems is that they replay past memories where someone is stating something, and then the reactive mind literally interprets the statement and causes the person to act on that statement. I have previously mentioned the example of a child whose engram stated "You've got to take it." This child grew up to be a kleptomaniac because the reactive mind literally interpreted this statement in the engram, although it was actually the father yelling at the mother while raping her.

But there is a contradiction here. On the one hand, Hubbard states that the reactive mind thinks in identities, A=A=A. On the other hand, the reactive mind understands a most complex concept unique to man, language. In order to understand language, you must be able to differentiate between sounds, such as "ch" and "th". You must be able to differentiate between verbs and nouns. As anyone who has learned a second language can attest, understanding a language is an enormous analytical challenge, yet this is what is required of the moronic reactive mind in Hubbard's theory.

Hubbard does not grasp this contradiction at all. He skirts the issue to some degree, stating for example that you should never name your son a junior (George, Jr. etc.) since any engrams with "George" in them will be interpreted by the reactive mind to apply to the junior when he grows up (although, surprisingly, Hubbard named his son L. Ron Hubbard, Jr.). "I hate George", for example, is incorrectly interpreted and applied to the junior, "though Mother meant Father". (6) But one can see in this case that the reactive mind could not tell one George from another, although it could differentiate between the "I" sound and the "G" sound, and also understood which sound was the noun, which the verb, and which the pronoun. It could not only differentiate the sounds into the three words, it could comprehend that "I" meant the mother, "hate" meant dislike intensely, and "George" meant the junior.

Now, let us remember the previous statement of Hubbard where a horse equals a swear word equals a deity. Consider also this other example, where "The reactive mind says 'NO!' Arthritis is a baby is a pig grunt is a prayer to God." (7) In this case a pig grunt cannot be differentiated between a prayer, nor an animate object, for that matter.

According to Hubbard's theories there is a great gulf between the analytical mind and the reactive mind. They are in fact in different areas of the body, where the analytical mind is in the brain and the reactive mind is "cellular". The analytical mind is said to be a perfect computer, making no mistakes and able to compute difficult items in split seconds. The reactive mind is moronic and thinks that everything equals everything else. If it could be shown that there was really little difference between the two or that they were so thoroughly connected that there was essentially no differentiation between the two, then dianetics theory collapses because its two major competitive components are revealed as in fact one. And this in fact is the case:

  • As has been shown already, the reactive mind understands language, which is perhaps the shining triumph of analytical thinking.
  • The reactive mind also makes decisions. It must decide one of five types of reaction to an engram that it will command the body to perform. (8)
  • It distinguishes in an engram between the ally and the enemy, if there are two or more people present. (9)
  • It chooses which valence, or which role, to dramatize from the engram. (10)
  • It decides which engram to restimulate if there is more than one engram with the same sensual recording being restimulated.

For Hubbard to call the reactive mind moronic, and yet declare that it can perform all these functions, seems to be contradictory. Since Hubbard did not seem to perceive this contradiction, he of course offered no explanation, so I offer two possible ones that could be presented to try to save the theory:

  1. The reactive mind connects with the analytical mind and utilizes some of its abilities.
  2. The reactive mind is actually a part of the analytical mind.

Either of these solutions is, however, actually a death blow to dianetics. The whole point of dianetics is that these two minds cannot communicate and are completely separate. Dianetic auditing, where one spends hundreds of hours searching out memories in the reactive mind, is touted as the only way that memories in the reactive mind can be transferred to the analytical mind and erased from the reactive mind. If #1 or #2 above were true, then this roundabout trip into the reactive mind would not be necessary, since the two minds are already on speaking terms. I understand that this point is perhaps hard to follow, but I have elaborated on it because I believe that if I am right, then the dianetic theory collapses right at the beginning of its explanation of how the mind works. If there is no gulf between the reactive and analytical mind (if this dichotomy even exists in reality), as dianetics posits, then there is no reason for dianetics to exist, as there would be no need for auditing.


  1. Dianetics, p.193
  2. Dianetics, pp. 88-9
  3. Dianetics, p.193
  4. Dianetics, p.56
  5. Dianetics, p.243
  6. Dianetics, p.405
  7. Dianetics, p.323
  8. Dianetics, p.197-200
  9. Dianetics, p.463
  10. Dianetics, p.155

Reprinted with permission from The Hubbard is Bare by Jeff Jacobsen. Copyright © 1992 by Jeff Jacobsen, P.O. Box 3541, Scottsdale, AZ 85271.