What is the Buddhist perspective on how we store and recall memories of this life and beyond? Since there is not solid core (Atman) as in the Hindu perspective which all such memories are stored and all cognitive phenomena pass away and arise again, how does the transmission, persistence and recollection of memory work. How does this compare with modern perspectives of it?

This question inspired by: The complexity of memory hence would like to see some comparison of some of the ideas in these talks being also discussed in the answer with regard to comparison with the modern perspectives.

  • 1
    Modern perspectives say that memories are stored in the brain: and that therefore we cannot recall memories of beyond this life (because the brain is not preserved/transferred "beyond this life"). And, the way in which the "modern perspective" says that we recall memories of this life (from/using the brain) are probably too complicated to explain easily and are off-topic on a site about Buddhism.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 21:06
  • 1
    What do mean when you say, "a Buddhist perspective"? Why are you saying that a "Buddhist perspective" is different from (i.e. can be compared with) a "modern perspective"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 21:11
  • 3
    I am more inclined towards knowing the Buddhist perspective with some indication where this deviates from modern cognitive psychology. Thus from my perspective it is on topic. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 8:21
  • 1
    The question implies that "the Buddhist perspective" might be compared/contrasted/opposed to the "modern perspective". That question might theoretically makes more sense now that you added a specific history-related tag i.e. 'theravada'.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 5:11

3 Answers 3


From my understanding of Buddhism, there are no memories from beyond. Everything including memories are impermanent. There is no permanent memory-self that remains from moment to moment.

  • But how do we recall something. E.g. what you did yesterday. Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 4:03
  • That is a great question, but I feel like the question is better suited for biology.stackexchange or somewhere where people have more knowledge on neurotransmitter and brain functions. I do not think Buddhism really applies here in the same way that it does not apply to "How does a computer save and recall files?". It is valid, just outside the scope of Buddhism.
    – Thien
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:34
  • human-memory.net/processes_recall.html Here is what I found on memory recall using google.
    – Thien
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 13:34
  • 2
    May be the AbiDhamma may say something more about it? Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 14:52
  • Yeah, I am of Zen Buddhism. I have no idea what AbiDhamma is. :)
    – Thien
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 15:03

There is a simple difference between the modern perspective of memory and the Buddhist perspective of memory.

So what is it?

In the modern understanding the brain is the storage device of the mind ("Mind" being a neurological phenomenon).

So to science it is a "As long as a being live" story,so their understanding fits the currently accepted version of scientific truth. Because as to them a creature grows it's brain with age,use it while it is alive and the memories die with the death of the creature.

Science will no longer proceed to a new theory because they have cemented their version of truth with this "only biological understanding!"

So what is the less explained Buddhist perspective?

As Buddhists we do not believe in a "Soul",Now this brings a lot of riddles on to the table because in any other religion "Soul" is like a "Log Book" so for them it is end of story!

If you try to find an answer from already existing sources of Buddhism you will see a certain paradox. Which is nothing else but the complete ignoring of the biological side of this story.

The double paradoxes

If you take a look at the Scientific perspective you will see the exact opposite version of this paradox. Which is the complete ignoring of the Mental side of this story.

The conclusion

  • How some people recall past lives

As Buddhism teaches experiences are collected from the senses and stored in "Vinyana" (We need to translate this as "Memory").

This "Vinyana" seems to be the word used for both MIND and MEMORY,like it is a combination of those two.

We know different parts of the brain work with different senses of the body.and this spark a lot of neurological activities (I belive this are the "Sith or thoughts").so for sceince this is only brain activity but to Buddhism this is the mind being created by events,thought and logic.

The simple thing you must understand is,The scientific theory of mind is based on how brain works,But Buddhism theory of mind is what fuels the brain activity and how to make it controllable.Because normal chaotic brain activity is not Buddhism way of a perfect mind.This are the "Duel Paradoxes".

Memories of a Previous Life:

Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study

buddhist monk displays unheard of brain activity while meditating

This Vinyana seems to be quite like a computers memory.

Imagine it this way...

If you copy files from your computer to your phone you can still see them working the same way, just like the memories of a person.

As Buddhism says in the moment of death a beings mind creates a backup copy of itself which will take residence in the next life this creature is about to live.So this is how the information about memories travel.this is not one set of memories traveling it is a copy of the original set of memories from the being.

As for how some are able to recall,it is not explained in Buddhism but if someone do a good karma and wish for it then it will happen,but there is no other way explained in records.

[Please refer "Abhidhamma" for more details]

So how does the memory works?

Memories are not actually real - buddhist view of memories

Memories are collected details reconstructed by the brain.So the senses of a body gather data (vibrations,light) and the vinyanas dedicated to those senses create the image or the sound and etc.,this is then collected by the "Mano vinyana" to create thought and logic.These are then stored as memories.As to new discoveries there is a dedicated neurological highway to each and every memory,So what a memory is nothing but a brain's unique and dedicated neurological path.The so called "Vinyana" is the collection of neurological pulses that occur and disappear each millisecond .In the end Science and Buddhism are two parallel subjects with different viewpoints.

"Quick lesson in Abhidhamma"

If you have any questions regarding my answer please ask in the comments section below.

  • You are welcome : ) @SumindaSirinathSalpitikorala
    – Theravada
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 21:44

As stated already, this is more of a scientific question than a Buddhism topic. As far as my understanding goes, according to neuroscience, thoughts are just a specific arrangement of neural connections within the brain. Each of the billions of neural connections in the human brain can either be turned 'on' or 'off'. The overall arrangements of the on and off switches of each neuron within the brain can be thought of as a computer code with a list of 1's and 0's (01110010100010101, for example). Each specific thought has a specific neural code (arrangement of 'on' and 'off' neurons). So, by recalling a past memory, you are simply repeating the neural code within your brain that occurred during the present tense of the memory.

That is basically, as far as my understanding goes, how we 'remember things'. It is questionable, however, in my opinion, how reliable memories are. This being because we can never go back to the specific neural code with 100% certainty. We can only try to duplicate this memory code and hope it is the same memory as the actual event that took place. (this may explain why some people have separate memories of the same occasion)

  • But are memories embedded onto the soul itself?
    – Yoda Bytes
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 21:37
  • Very interesting question. One that I don't know the answer to, but I do find it interesting to think about the soul's memory, especially when referring to instances of individuals having memories of past life's. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 13:50
  • 2
    I was under the impression that there were only the five aggregates (Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formations, and Consciousness) that make up what we call "Me". My understanding was that there is non-self. Thus there is no soul for things to be embedded on. To embed is to make permanent and attach to something permanent.
    – Thien
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 13:50
  • That was more than a satisfactory answer to my comment.
    – Yoda Bytes
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 14:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .