Tag Archives: memory

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.

Inspiring People: Savants

Savants have always been interesting to the scientific community because of their ability to overcome so many odds. The large majority of savants struggle with some form of mental handicap may it be social or intellectual. Yet, despite these struggles most savants reach a level of genius and expertise far beyond what is considered normal human capacity. One savant that we all probably have at least heard of is Rain Man, who was inspired by a real life savant Mr. Kim Peak who sadly died in 2009.


The different kinds of Savant syndrome can be categorised as Splinter Skills, Talented Savants and Prodigious Savants. Splinter skills is when a person has specific skills that stand out compared to their normal level of functioning (Hiles, 2002). Talented savants is when the individual has a high level of ability  compared to a disability, and prodigious savants, the rarest of them all, is when a person has a level of brilliance not only compared to their normal functioning but compared to human capacity (ibid). It is important to note that that even though Savant syndrome is the official name, it is not considered a disorder by either DSM-IV-IR or ICD-10.

Stephen Wiltshire 

In the news recently is Stephen Wilshire, another autistic Savant. Stephen Wilshire (2013) spent his childhood as a mute, not speaking until around the age of 9. He pretty much relied on his artwork to communicate with anyone, even his family. Today, however, Wiltshire has risen above his handicaps, and now owns his own gallery in in London’s Royal Opera Arcade that feature his amazing artwork. What draws people to his artwork, however, is not just his admirable artistic talent but also his incredible memory for fine detail. Wiltshire is able to draw the most incredible architectural detail having only seen the building for a couple of seconds. An incredible YouTube video shows Wiltshire flying over Rome in a helicopter just once to then return to a studio and draw an awe-inspiringly accurate panorama of the beautiful city.



The Twins 

The Twins, two brothers featured in Oliver Sack’s 1985 book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, were both severely handicapped with an IQ of 60. Despite being terribly bad at simple calculations and the basic concepts of multiplication and division, the brothers were still able to communicated with each other through numbers. Even more astounding was their ability to memorize 300 figure digits, knowing if a number up to 20 digits was prime, and to know any day of the week 40 thousand years into the past and future!


Daniel Tammet 

Lastly, Daniel Tammet is an autistic, prodigious savant known to most of the world for the week it took him to learn Icelandic. Despite being socially handicapped, he is considered gifted in mathematics and language learning, holding the European record for reciting the digits of pi. Unlike the other three, Tammet is considering high-functioning on the autistic spectrum, but despite this his incredible mathematical and linguistic ability is far more advanced that normal. Professor Alan Synder of the Australian National Universtiy compared Tammet to the Rosetta Stone because unlike Savants, he is able to explain the processes going on his brain and mnemonic devices he implements. Research conducted by Cambridge Professor Simon Baron-Cohen et al. in 2005 discovered that Tammet has synesthesia and incredible short-term memory. Baron-Cohen et al. suggests that the combination of his synesthesia, incredible short-term memory, Asperger’s and his use of mnemonic strategies is what enables him to have such an immense capacity for learning.



NICHOLSON, R. (2013). Referencing and citation – Harvard style, from PSY106 Memory, Skill and Everyday Life. University of Sheffield, Richard Roberts Building on 6th March. Available from: Blackboard.