Hermann Ebbinghaus: The Memory Man

Hermann Ebbinghaus: The Memory Man

There have been several advancements in the field of psychology since the days of Hermann Ebbinghaus. In the late 1800’s, there emerged several individuals whom contributed to the advancements of “new psychology”, including the founder of experimental psychology Wilhelm Wundt. Another influential character during this time was Gustav Fechner who is the “inadvertent founder of psychophysics”. As these ideas were presented, they inspired Ebbinghaus to further advance experimental psychology and psychophysics into a domain that had not been reached before. Herman Ebbinghaus has made a lasting impression in the psychology world by examining the human memory as seen with nonsense syllables, retention of memory, and the famous forgetting curve (Goodwin, 2008, p. 121).

An attractive location for young scholars was in Germany. In 1850, Hermann Ebbinghaus was born in Barman, Germany. There is little information known regarding his childhood, but at age seventeen Ebbinghaus enrolled in university. His journey throughout this time showed how indecisive he was; his interests changed from history to philology to philosophy. He eventually earned his doctorate from the University of Bonn at the age of twenty three. During a trip to France, he stumbled upon Gustav Fechner’s book entitled Elements of Psychophysics. This was the turning point for Ebbinghaus as he decided to concentrate his studying on the formation of associations (Goodwin, 2008, p. 121).

Herman Ebbinghaus was inspired by British Empiricist to research human memory. In his book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, he observed various forms of memory emphasizing how difficult this process is to study and observe. “He pointed out that what little was known about memory was known through common sense and from anecdotes about extreme and especially striking cases” (Goodwin, 2008 p. 121). Ebbinghaus believed that repetition through associations was the best way to strengthen memory. In his research, to test his own memory, he first created 2,300 nonsense syllables or CVC’s. Nonsense syllables are three-letter units comprised of two constants with a vowel in the middle (e.g. nog, baf). His purpose behind the nonsense syllables was to have control in his experiment. Using one letter or numbers was not enough, and words are too meaningful. In essence, he wanted to observe how associations between syllables were first formed, not their relative meaningfulness to an individual (Goodwin, 2008, p. 121). He was interested in observing how memory (recall) worked when a person was not familiar with the information that was being required to learn. Therefore, there would be no connection or possible advantage to the nonsense syllables. Once he had the words, he created several different lists using the nonsense words. In his experiment, Ebbinghaus was the only subject, so he himself learned the lists until he had reached perfect recall by using the method of serial learning. This involves memorizing a list of verbal stimuli and recalling the stimuli in the exact order in which it was given. It took over a year to complete his first set of trials, as well as replicating the experiments three years later (Experimental, 2007).

By doing this tedious task, Ebbinghaus came up with several different results that aided in the growth of understanding of human memory. Three main effects of his research yielded results of how quickly syllables are learned, the strengthening of human memory, and the rate of forgetting. The amount of time it took him to learn a list of words was dependent upon how many syllables were in the list. As mentioned before, he memorized the lists until they could be repeated without error. This was measured as the number of repetitions it took to memorize a list. For example, when there were only seven syllables in a list, very little effort was needed to recall (he only needed one repetition for his first errorless reproduction of the list). However, when there were 16 syllables in a series, it took 30 repetitions for him to be able to recall without error. When there were 24 syllables in a series, 44 repetitions were needed; as well as 36 syllables, which needed 55 repetitions. As the number of syllables increased, so did the number of repetitions needed to recall the list without error. As some of the findings may not seem significant in today’s society, the discovery of this information during Ebbinghaus’ time was remarkable. Once Ebbinghaus discovered that the longer a list was, the more repetitions it took to memorize the list, he wondered if “increasing the number of original repetitions would strengthen memory” (Goodwin, 2008 p.123). He learned that depending on the number of repetitions was proportional to the ease of relearning a list after a day. In addition, he noted that cramming in all the studying of the lists was less effective than spreading out the studying over a longer period of time.

One of Ebbinghaus’ most famous studies resulted in the discovery of the rate of forgetting. To measure this, he relied heavily on a method called the savings method. This “enabled him to measure memory after the passage of time even if nothing could be recalled after the interval” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 123). After he learned his list of syllables, he waited a fixed amount of times to try to relearn these syllables. He completed 163 separate experiments in order to collect his data, which is now known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. The curve represents the percent of information saved and the time between learning and relearning. It shows how more time elapses the more likely that information will be forgotten (Copeland, Radvansky, & Goodwin, 2009). For instance, he after 20 minutes he was able to recall 60% of relearned material and the other 40% had been lost. After an hour, he was able to only recall about 45% of the information (i.e. lists), and after a day less than 40% was able to be recalled (Goodwin, 2008).

Ebbinghaus also investigated remote associations. Remote associations are indirect associations between list items separated by more than a single item (Goodwin, 2008, p. 124). To explain this research, Ebbinghaus would memorize a list (called A). After he was able to recall the first list, each additional list would have syllables that were skipped (by two or three). Ebbinghaus found that when he learned a list in a certain order (A,B,C), he was able to retain more information than learning a whole new list of syllables. Between his findings it was proven that there is a relationship between relearning and the remoteness of associations (Goodwin, 2008, p. 123).

In addition to memory research Ebbinghaus also invented a sentence completion test to evaluate mental testing. These tests would open with the beginning of a sentence which were left open for the subject to finish in their own words and interpretations (Memory, 2008). Ebbinghaus’ sentence completions tests were used for intelligence testing. While holding academic positions at the German universities of Berlin and Breslau, he fashioned both of the institutions first psychology laboratories. In addition to his very popular journal, Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs he wrote two more introductory to psychology books which were also highly admired (Goodwin, 2008, p. 125). Even though Ebbinghaus was his only subject, several of his discoveries of the human memory are still applicable today.

Copeland, D. E., Radvansky, G. A., & Goodwin, K. A. (2009). A novel study: Forgetting curves and the reminiscence bump. Memory, 17(3), 323-336. doi:10.1080/09658210902729491

Goodwin, J. C. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology, 3rd edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Herman Ebbinghaus: German Experimental Psychologist (2007). Human Intelligence. Retrieved from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/ebbinghaus.shtml.

Hermann Ebbinghaus: Memory (2008). Intelegen Inc. Retrieved from http://web-us.com/memory/hermann_ebbinghaus.htm