In Western philosophy, the concept of tabula rasa can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle who writes in his treatise "Περί Ψυχῆς" (De Anima or On the Soul) of the "unscribed tablet." In one of the more well-known passages of this treatise he writes that:
Have not we already disposed of the difficulty about interaction involving a common element, when we said that mind is in a sense potentially whatever is thinkable, though actually it is nothing until it has thought? What it thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing-tablet on which as yet nothing stands written: this is exactly what happens with mind.
This idea was further developed in Ancient Greek philosophy by the Stoic school. Stoic epistemology emphasizes that the mind starts blank, but acquires knowledge as the outside world is impressed upon it. The doxographer Aetius summarizes this view as "When a man is born, the Stoics say, he has the commanding part of his soul like a sheet of paper ready for writing upon." Diogenes Laërtius attributes a similar belief to the Stoic Zeno of Citium when he writes in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that:
Perception, again, is an impression produced on the mind, its name being appropriately borrowed from impressions on wax made by a seal; and perception they divide into, comprehensible and incomprehensible: Comprehensible, which they call the criterion of facts, and which is produced by a real object, and is, therefore, at the same time conformable to that object; Incomprehensible, which has no relation to any real object, or else, if it has any such relation, does not correspond to it, being but a vague and indistinct representation.
Psychologists and neurobiologists have shown evidence that initially, the entire cerebral cortex is programmed and organized to process sensory input, control motor actions, regulate emotion, and respond reflexively (under predetermined conditions). These programmed mechanisms in the brain subsequently act to learn and refine the ability of the organism. For example, psychologist Steven Pinker showed that—in contrast to written language—the brain is "programmed" to pick up spoken language spontaneously.
There have been claims by a minority in psychology and neurobiology, however, that the brain is tabula rasa only for certain behaviours. For instance, with respect to one's ability to acquire both general and special types of knowledge or skills, Howe argued against the existence of innate talent. There also have been neurological investigations into specific learning and memory functions, such as Karl Lashley's study on mass action and serial interaction mechanisms.
Important evidence against the tabula rasa model of the mind comes from behavioural genetics, especially twin and adoption studies. These indicate strong genetic influences on personal characteristics such as IQ, alcoholism, gender identity, and other traits. Critically, multivariate studies show that the distinct faculties of the mind, such as memory and reason, fractionate along genetic boundaries. Cultural universals such as emotion and the relative resilience of psychological adaptation to accidental biological changes (for instance the David Reimer case of gender reassignment following an accident) also support basic biological mechanisms in the mind.