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Summary Article: Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1850–1909)
from Encyclopedia of Human Memory

Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the first scientists to study memory experimentally. He is known for his methodical experiments using nonsense syllables, such as “woj,” on himself as his only subject. Through rigorous experimentation, he discovered many memory concepts that are still studied today.

Ebbinghaus was born in Barmen, Germany, on January 24, 1850. He studied at the University of Bonn and completed his doctorate in philosophy in 1873 (there were not many psychology labs at the time). Ebbinghaus was heavily influenced by a book written by Gustav Fechner, one of the founders of modern psychology who attempted to define laws governing sensation and perception.

Ebbinghaus acquired a position at the University of Berlin. While at Berlin, he established one of the earliest psychology laboratories. In 1885, Ebbinghaus published Über das Gedächtnis (On Memory), which was favorably received. He also co-founded an early psychology journal in 1890. Ebbinghaus moved to a university in Breslau in 1894 and then to one in Halle in 1905, where he remained until his death on February 26, 1909, at the age of 60.

Ebbinghaus is remembered for his methodical experiments, the concepts he contributed to the field of human memory, and his thoughts regarding psychology as a science. Ebbinghaus primarily focused on long-term memory and used nonsense syllables in his work. Nonsense syllables are typically single syllables consisting of three letters, a vowel surrounded by two consonants that is called a consonant-vowel-consonant trigram (CVC) (e.g., “wug”). Researchers use nonsense syllables to test memory because the nonsense syllables have no meaning. This lets researchers test what memory would be like without the added benefit of meaning. For example, people would have different performance for a list that contained “wug, bij, laj” versus another list that included “car, mat, sun.” Ebbinghaus memorized lists of nonsense syllables on one day by reciting the list until he made no mistakes during recall. He would then see how long it took him to relearn the same list on another day, sometimes many days later, a method he developed that is called savings.

Ebbinghaus made many discoveries through his work. He discovered the learning curve, which shows that gains in learning and memory are large as we first start to learn something, but the amount of improvement decreases the more time that is spent learning that material. Ebbinghaus also discovered the spacing effect, which results in better memory for distributed practice (learning that is spread across days) than massed practice. The spacing effect is particularly relevant for students. Over 120 years ago, Ebbinghaus showed that reviewing the same material on different days results in better performance than cramming the material into a short period of time. Ebbinghaus also was the first to describe the forgetting curve, which shows that most material is forgotten almost immediately after learning, but the memory decay decreases thereafter and plateaus. More recent research has shown that this memory—for example, memory for Spanish vocabulary—can then last for decades.

Ebbinghaus also discovered the serial position effect, which is the better memory for words at the beginning and end of a list, and the list length effect in which longer lists take longer to learn. Ebbinghaus also worked with a commission studying the length of the school day; their work influenced later tests of intellectual capabilities. Ebbinghaus also wrote commentaries and critiques of existing theories.He defended experimental psychology with its emphasis on hypothesis testing and causality, as opposed to psychology of felt/things that cannot be explained. Ebbinghaus argued that psychology should be separate from philosophy and more related to biology.

Ebbinghaus's influence continues despite the fact that he was not prolific in his published works; he preferred to replicate his studies. For example, he completed some memory studies in 1880, replicated them in 1883, and published the work in 1885. Ebbinghaus also did not study emotion, the brain, brain damage (even though such studies were being conducted at the time), meaningful material, context, or other processes that might influence learning and memory. In addition, modern memory researchers do not use nonsense syllables as much. Instead, they are typically more interested in testing stimuli that people might encounter in their daily lives. Ebbinghaus's influence continues through his emphasis on methodical experimentation, key concepts in human memory, and psychology as a science.

Further Reading
  • Haberlandt, K. (1999). Human memory: Exploration and applications. Allyn and Bacon Needham Heights MA.
  • Shakow, D. (1930). Hermann Ebbinghaus. American Journal of Psychology, 42, 505-518.
  • Selected Works
  • Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Introduction to memory: Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885/1913). Classics in the History of Psychology. Accessible at: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Ebbinghaus/wozniak.htm.
  • Galván, Veronica
    Copyright 2013 by Annette Kujawski Taylor

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