Subject: Memory – Herman Ebbinghaus
Event: Birthday of John Medina, author of Brain Rules, 1956.
Today is the birthday of John Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In 2008, Medina published a book called Brain Rules where he summarized research on the human brain in twelve categories, including exercise, sleep, stress, attention, and memory. In the book, Medina endeavored to focus on what is known about the brain based on research rather than to speculate on specific prescriptions or recommendations. His standard was that supporting research for his brain rules must be supported by published, peer-reviewed, and replicated research.
In his chapter on memory, Medina presents a simple rule: “Repeat to remember.” To explain important insights on how the human brain transfers knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory, Medina profiles a man we might call the ‘father of memory,’ the 19th-century German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus.
Ebbinghaus spent years memorizing three-letter nonsense words, such as TAZ, LEF, REN, and ZUG. His purpose for doing this was to gather data on the lifespan of human memory. What he found was that human memory is fleeting; without reinforcement, students forget about 90% of what they learn within 30 days. The good news, however, is that Ebbinghaus also discovered the key to extending the lifespan of memories, which is repetition in timed intervals. In other words, the effortful act of trying to retrieve a memory strengthens that memory and makes it more likely to survive in long term memory. Ebbinghaus also discovered a concept known as the serial position effect. For example, if students are given a list of words to remember, most will remember the first few and the last few. Words in the middle are most likely to be forgotten. The name for our tendency to recall what is presented first is called the primacy effect. The name for our tendency to recall what is presented last, or most recent, is called the recency effect.
Writers and speakers should consider the serial position effect when organizing their messages. Your hello and your goodbye are always the most memorable. Order matters. Every piece of writing and every speech has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Put important points at the beginning and the end. And realize that you will need to put in extra effort if you want the middle of your message to be memorable.
As both Medina and Ebbinghaus remind us, when it comes to memory we must remember that like water in a glass it can evaporate quickly unless we actively do something to stop it from disappearing. The keys to memory are spaced repetition coupled with retrieval practice — the practice of consciously recalling information without looking at notes. If you want to move something from short term to long term memory, you must take the time to repeat it, recite it, and retrieve it using deliberately timed intervals. While it is true that procrastination is the thief of time, it is also, clearly, the thief of memory (1).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What did Hermann Ebbinghaus discover about memory, and how can we apply his concepts for more effective learning?
Challenge – Recall, Recite, Repeat: Apply Medina’s rule for memory and Ebbinghaus’ spaced repetition to commit a short poem of at least ten lines to memory.
1-Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0979777707