Hermann Ebbinghaus


Hermann Ebbinghaus : biography

January 24, 1850 – February 26, 1909

Ebbinghaus is also largely credited with drafting the first standard research report. In his paper on memory, Ebbinghaus arranged his research into four sections: the introduction, the methods, the results, and a discussion section. This clarity and organization of this format was so impressive to contemporaries that it has now become standard in the discipline and all research reports follow the same standards laid out by Ebbinghaus.

Unlike notable contemporaries like Titchener and James, Ebbinghaus did not promote any specific school of psychology nor was he known for extensive lifetime research, having only done three works. He had never attempted to bestow upon himself the title of the pioneer of experimental psychology, did not seek to have any “disciples”, and left the exploitation of the new field to others.

Early life

Ebbinghaus was born in Barmen, Germany, the son of a wealthy Lutheran merchant, Carl Ebbinghaus. Little is known about his infancy except that he was brought up in the Lutheran faith and was a pupil at the town Gymnasium. At the age of 17 (1867), he began attending the University of Bonn, where he had planned to study history and philology. However, during his time there he developed an interest in philosophy. In 1870, his studies were interrupted when he served with the Prussian Army in the Franco-Prussian War. Following this short stint in the military, Ebbinghaus finished his dissertation on Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosphie des Unbewussten (Philosophy of the Unconscious), and received his doctorate on August 16, 1873, when he was 23 years old. During the next three years, he moved around, spending time at Halle and Berlin.

Contributions to memory

In 1885, he published his groundbreaking Über das Gedächtnis ("On Memory", later translated to English as Memory. A Contribution to Experimental Psychology) in which he described experiments he conducted on himself to describe the processes of learning and forgetting.

Ebbinghaus made several findings that are still relevant and supported to this day. First, arguably his most famous finding, the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve describes the exponential loss of information that one has learned.T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 7: Memory." pp. 126 The sharpest decline occurs in the first twenty minutes and the decay is significant through the first hour. The curve levels off after about one day.A typical representation of the [[forgetting curve]]

The learning curve described by Ebbinghaus refers to how fast one learns information. The sharpest increase occurs after the first try and then gradually evens out, meaning that less and less new information is retained after each repetition. Like the forgetting curve, the learning curve is exponential. Ebbinghaus had also documented the serial position effect, which describes how the position of an item affects recall. The two main concepts in the serial position effect are recency and primacy. The recency effect describes the increased recall of the most recent information because it is still in the short-term memory. The primacy effect better memory of the first items in a list due to increased rehearsal and commitment to long-term memory.

Another important discovery is that of savings. This refers to the amount of information retained in the subconscious even after this information cannot be consciously accessed. Ebbinghaus would memorize a list of items until perfect recall and then would not access the list until he could no longer recall any of its items. He then would relearn the list, and compare the new learning curve to the learning curve of his previous memorization of the list. The second list was generally memorized faster, and this difference between the two learning curves is what Ebbinghaus called “savings”. Ebbinghaus also described the difference between involuntary and voluntary memory, the former occurring “with apparent spontaneity and without any act of the will” and the latter being brought “into consciousness by an exertion of the will”.