Profile of a Psychologis: Hermann Ebbinghaus

herrmannBorn in Bramen, Germany in 1850, Ebbinghaus was the first psychologist to study learning and memory by conducting experiments on himself. At age seventeen, he commenced his study of philosophy at Bonn University on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. After completing his studies, he travelled to France and England, conducting research on the “power of memory.” In 1885, he published Memory “detailing the nonsense syllable” research. The nonsense syllable, logatome or pseudoword is a string of syllables that resembles a real word is in fact “nonsense.” In the psychology of learning nonsense syllables are used as a way to examine speech recognition. After becoming professor at Berlin University, he established two psychological laboratories there. Finally, he moved to Berslau University, founded another laboratory, teaching there until his death in 1909.

Inspired by philosophers by the likes of John Locke and David Hume, Ebbinghaus argued that “remembering involves association,” linking things or ideas by similarities such as “time, place, cause or effect.” The goal of his research was to test how association can improve memory. To verify the accuracy of his findings, he recorded the results mathematically to see if “memory follows verifiable patterns.” This would become known as the Forgetting Curve.

To start his memory experiments, Ebbinghaus began by memorising lists of words to test his recall abilities. He then created 2,3000 nonsense syllables, three letters each with the same pattern consonant-vowel-consonant, to prevent association. He then grouped these nonsense syllables into lists, looked over the list for a few seconds, waited fifteen seconds to then try a second time. He then repeated his process until he could correctly recite the series. Alternating the list lengths and learning intervals, Ebbinghaus also tested how these variables effected the speed of learning and forgetting.

herrmann1Ebbinghaus discovered that material  he found meaningful, such as a poem, was up to ten times more easily remembered than the nonsense syllables. He also found that more time he spent memorising the list, the easier it was and the less time it took to reproduce the list from memory. In addition, he found that the information remembered after the first repetitions, were the most effectively remembered after time had passed. Finally, Ebbinghaus also found that typically, a very rapid loss of recall occurs in the first hour, followed by lowered rate of recall loss. To clarify, after nine hours sixty percent is forgotten and after twenty four hours, two-thirds of recall is lost. Plotted on a mathematical graph, Ebbinghaus’s findings shows a clear “forgetting curve” starting with a “sharp drop, followed by a shallow slope.”

Ebbinghaus’ findings still remain the basis of the psychology of learning and memory.


Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.