Hermann Ebbinghaus

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Hermann Ebbinghaus : biography

January 24, 1850 – February 26, 1909

Hermann Ebbinghaus (January 24, 1850 — February 26, 1909) was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, and is known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. He was also the first person to describe the learning curve.Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Introduction to memory: Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885/1913). He was the father of the eminent neo-Kantian philosopher Julius Ebbinghaus.

Limitations to memory research

There are several limitations to his work on memory. The most important one was that Ebbinghaus was the only subject in his study. This limited the study’s generalizability to the population. Although he attempted to regulate his daily routine to maintain more control over his results, his decision to avoid the use of participants sacrificed the external validity of the study despite sound internal validity. In addition, although he tried to account for his personal influences, there is an inherent bias when someone serves as researcher as well as participant. Also, Ebbinghaus’ memory research halted research in other, more complex matters of memory such as semantic and procedural memory and mnemonics.Thorne, B., Henley, T.(2005). Hermann Ebbinghaus in Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology (3rd Edition ed., pp. 211-216). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Discourse on the nature of psychology

In addition to pioneering experimental psychology, Ebbinghaus was also a strong defender of this direction of the new science, as is illustrated by his public dispute with University of Berlin colleague, Wilhelm Dilthey. Shortly after Ebbinghaus left Berlin in 1893, Dilthey published a paper extolling the virtues of descriptive psychology, and condemning experimental psychology as boring, claiming that the mind was too complex, and that introspection was the desired method of studying the mind. The debate at the time had been primarily whether psychology should aim to explain or understand the mind and whether it belonged to the natural or human sciences. Many had seen Dilthey’s work as an outright attack on experimental psychology, Ebbinghaus included, and he responded to Dilthey with a personal letter and also a long scathing public article. Amongst his counterarguments against Dilthey he mentioned that it is inevitable for psychology to do hypothetical work and that the kind of psychology that Dilthey was attacking was the one that existed before Ebbinghaus’s “experimental revolution”. Charlotte Buhler echoed his words some forty years later, stating that people like Ebbinghaus "buried the old psychology in the 1890s". Ebbinghaus explained his scathing review by saying that he could not believe that Dilthey was advocating the status quo of structuralists like Wilhelm Wundt and Titchener and attempting to stifle psychology’s progress.

Some contemporary texts still describe Ebbinghaus as a philosopher rather than a psychologist and he had also spent his life as a professor of philosophy. However, Ebbinghaus himself would probably describe himself as a psychologist considering that he fought to have psychology viewed as a separate discipline from philosophy.

Other contributions

Ebbinghaus can also be credited with pioneering sentence completion exercises, which he developed in studying the abilities of schoolchildren. It was these same exercises that Alfred Binet had borrowed and incorporated into the Binet-Simon intelligence scale. Sentence completion had since then also been used extensively in memory research, especially in tapping into measures of implicit memory, and also has been used in psychotherapy as a tool to help tap into the motivations and drives of the patient. He had also influenced Charlotte Buhler, who along with Lev Vygotsky and others went on to study language meaning and society. The [[Ebbinghaus Illusion. Note that the orange circles appear of different sizes, even though equal.]] Ebbinghaus is also credited with discovering an optical illusion now known after its discoverer—the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is an illusion of relative size perception. In the best-known version of this illusion, two circles of identical size are placed near to each other and one is surrounded by large circles while the other is surrounded by small circles; the first central circle then appears smaller than the second central circle. This illusion is now used extensively in research in cognitive psychology, to find out more about the various perception pathways in our brain.