During the late 1800’s a new science was emerging in Europe. Psychology’s roots
can be traced back to Germany and a man by the name of William Wunt. Following
Wunt other psychologists began emerging in different fields. Of these pioneers Herman
Ebbinghaus was one, and his field of study was memory. He performed the first
experiments in 1885 in Germany and the following is a background on the man and his
Herman Ebbinghaus was born in 1850 in Germany and died there in 1909.
received his formal education at the Universities of Bonn, Halle, and Berlin (Gale, 1996).
Ebbinghaus received degrees in philosophy and history from these universities (Gale,
1996). Ebbinghaus went on to teach at the Universities of Berlin, Poland, Breslaw and
Halle (Gale, 1996). These experiences combined with later experiences with memory
combine to give Ebbinghaus a curiosity about memory greater than most of his time.
Memory can be defined as your amount of learning or your stored information.
The process of storing and retreving information from the brain that is central to learning
and thinking (Microsoft Encarta, [MSE], 1997).
According to Myers (1998) memory is
“any indication that learning has persisted over time”. There are also four types of
memory classified: recollection, recall, recognition, and relearning. Recollection is the
reconstruction of facts based on clues that serve as reminders; recall is the active
remembering of something from the past without help; recognition is the ability to
identify previous stimuli as familiar; relearning is material that seems to be easier to
remember than others as if it has been learned before (MSE, 1997). These four types of
memory together help all people to remember anything from the states’ capitals to your
best friends birthday party from second grade. Some researchers say that there are
specific sites dedicated to memory while others say that all the brain works together
(MSE, 1997). There are tests to determine memory in individuals that Ebbinghaus
himself developed and will be discussed later. One test that does involve memory in a
way would be the IQ test developed to test childrens level of intelligence which in turn
depends on how much the child remembers.
Ebbinghaus served in the Franco-Prussian War then seven years after that, decided
to tutor in England, France and Berlin (Gale, 1996). It was during this time that
Ebbinghaus became interested in memory and began to wonder how memory worked
(Gale, 1996). In the journal of Physiological Psychology William Wunt said that a test
on memory could not be performed (Gale, 1996). After reading this Ebbinghaus decided
that he would try and test memory himself. Armed with his curiosity and his knowledge
of memory from tutoring Ebbinghaus began the tests. He used the same mathematical
treatment that Gustav Fechner used in Elements of Psychophysics to try and test memory
Ebbinghaus decided to be the subject and the experimenter in this test so he made
a list of nonsense syllables that he would memorize (Myers, 1998). He crated 2,300 one
syllable consonant-vowel-consonant combinations to make his study easier (Gale, 1996).
He made words such as taz, bok, lef so that he could test the memorization rather than his
previous knowledge of the words. He divided the material into lists that he memorized in
different conditions (Gale, 1996). He measured them at night, in the day, when he was
tired, just gotten up, etc. He recorded the average time it took him to memorize the lists
perfectly then altared the test (Gale 1996). According to Gale (1996) he made
observations about ther effects of such variables as speed, list length, and number of
repetitions. Ebbinghaus also wanted to test long term and short term memory retention.
He compared the time it took him to memorize any list once with the ammount of time it
took him to memorize the same list again (Gale, 1996). He also measured immediate
memory showing that he remembered about six to eight items off his list after one look
Ebbinghaus in testing memory wanted to know how much he still knew from his
lists later. According to Myers (1998) he would test himself on the same material thirty
minutes to thirty days after his initial test. Using the mathematical methods mentioned
earlier he came up with a retention curve showing how much of the information he was
able to retrieve the next day. This figure can be seen on the attatched sheet, Figure 9.3.
Ebbinghaus discovered that the longer he repeated the list on the first day the more he
remembered on the second day when he was trying to recall the information (Myers,
1998). Here is where the principle “The amount remembered depends on the time spent
learning” stems from (Myers 1998). Ebbinghaus didn’t always remember what he learned
though. The amount he forgot can be seen his forgetting curve (see attached sheet) Figure
9.13. Ebbinghaus tested himself up to thirty days after the inital remembering and
graphed what he remembered then (Myers, 1998). The results show that as time
increased percentage remembered decreases (Myers, 1998). Ebbinghaus did distinguish
that nonsense information is more easily forgotten then everyday material. According to
Gale (1996) Ebinghaus tested himself on 420 lists of 16 syllables 340 times each, making
14,280 trials. Ebbinghaus studied learning rates for meaningful and meaningless material
concluding that meaningful items such as sentences and words could be learned much
more efficiently than nonsense syllables (Gale, 1996).
As a result of Ebbinghaus’ work more about memory is now known. It is better to
evenly space memorization rather than memorize it all at once (Gale, 1996). Despite
Wunt’s disagreement many still use Ebbinghaus’ work on memory as a model for
research on human memory (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus also developed a test for memory
in 1894 while studying the mental capacities of children he developed a sentence
completion test that is still used today to measure intelligence (Gale, 1996). This was the
first successful test of mental ability (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus was the cofounder of the
first German psychology journal, the Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense
Organs in 1890 and wrote two text books: The Principles of Psychology(1902) and A
Beer, Colin G. (1993). “Psychology, Experimental”. Encarta Encyclopedia. 1998.
Microsoft Corperation. (1993-1998). “Educational Psychology”. Microsoft Encarta
Microsoft Corperation. (1993-1998). “Memory and Mental Processes”. Microsoft
Myers, David. (1998). Psychology. New York. Worth Publishers.
Cite this Herman Ebbinghaus Place in Psychological History
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