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Do you wish your memory was better? If you read on about the research of Hermann Ebbinghaus, you will discover the circumstances under which we retain information the best. As an added bonus, find out a bit about optical illusions.

About Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) was born in Germany and was one of the few experimental psychologists of his era. He earned a doctorate degree when he was only 23 from the University of Bonn.

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He went on to become a professor at the University of Berlin, where he was known even overseas for his passion for teaching and testing new ideas through experiments. His research focused on sensation and perception (which includes a famous optical illusion) as well as memory, which is his most significant contribution to the field of psychology. The following sections will focus on this research in more detail.

Memory Experiments

If you’re looking for ways to optimize your study habits, Ebbinghaus’s research on memory should help you. He spent lots of time being his own test subject, trying to memorize nonsense syllables in order to see which methods of memorization would work the best. These usually involved a consonant, followed by a vowel, and ending with another consonant.

The use of nonsense syllables were preferred because they were not familiar, and therefore, could not involve prior learning. Through this process, he discovered a number of trends about how the human mind retains new information.The first of these trends is known as the spacing effect. When Ebbinghaus tried to memorize syllables, he found that he was better able to do this through distributed practice, meaning that he could retain more information when he studied it a little bit at a time every day rather than when he tried to memorize a large amount of information in one day.

This can be applied to studying for tests as well. You will do better on an exam if you review the material little by little every day than if you wait until the night before the exam and spend five hours cramming.Another trend with memorization identified by Ebbinghaus is the serial position effect. This effect can work in one of two ways. When a list of syllables is first presented, it is more likely that the last few syllables will be remembered the best immediately after first exposure. If, however, rehearsal of the list is allowed and an attempt to recall the list is made at a later time, the first few syllables on the list will be remembered best.

To use a more clear example, if your significant other tells you a list of items to get at the grocery store and asks you to repeat the list back immediately, you would be best able to remember the last few items on the list. Although, if you instead just repeat the list to yourself on your way to the store to try to remember everything on it, you would best be able to remember the first few items on the list.Thirdly, there is the forgetting curve. Ebbinghaus would learn a list of syllables and then test his memory of that list in varying time intervals, from 20 minutes later to 30 days later without further rehearsal. He observed that information is forgotten very rapidly at first. After a certain amount of time passes, this forgetting levels out, and whatever information is left after the initial memory decay tends to stay in memory.

A classic example of this relates to taking a foreign language in high school or college. Let’s say you studied Spanish in school, but then after graduation never used the language. You would notice that a large amount of the language would be forgotten if you test your knowledge, even if you knew it very well in school. Once this forgetting hits its peak, however, you would notice that it evens out.

Therefore, if tested on your Spanish vocabulary five years later and then again ten years later, the amount you remember would probably remain the same.

The Ebbinghaus Optical Illusion

In addition to memory, Ebbinghaus did research on sensation and perception. Of these studies on sensation and perception, one became so famous that it was named after him. In the Ebbinghaus optical illusion, there are two circles. One is surrounded by circles that are larger than the center one, and the other is surrounded by much smaller circles than the center one.

Although the two center circles are the same exact size, they appear to differ in size due to the visual cues from the surrounding circles, which alters the way the brain perceives them. This is referred to as relative size.

Lesson Summary

Hermann Ebbinghaus greatly impacted the field of psychology with his research in experimental psychology. He is best known for his work on sensation, perception, and memory. Examples of his discoveries about memory include:

  • The spacing effect: distributed practice works better than mass practice
  • The serial position effect: the tendency to remember best the first or last items on a list
  • The forgetting curve: the rate at which we forget is at first rapid and then levels out

His research on sensation and perception led him to develop an optical illusion involving relative size that was named after him, which continues to provide him with a lasting legacy.

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