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.  

Hermann Ebbinghaus (Wikipedia)

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

January 19: Poe Toaster Day

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Born into a family of traveling actors, Poe was orphaned when he was just three years old.  He was taken in and raised by a Virginia family, the Allans.  

Although Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, he constantly struggled financially — a struggle that was no doubt fueled by his habits of drinking and gambling.  Not until after his death, at just forty years of age, was his work recognized for its genius.  His short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have become classics, and his poem “The Raven” is one of the most recognized and recited poems in the English language.  In fact, the poem is so well recognized that when the city of Baltimore, the site of Poe’s death in 1849, acquired its NFL franchise in 1996, they chose the Ravens as their name.  (The team’s three costumed raven mascots are named “Edgar,” “Allen,” and “Poe.”).

Known for the tales of macabre and mystery he wrote during his life, one specific mystery became associated with Poe after his death.

For sixty years, beginning in 1949 (the centennial of his death), an anonymous admirer visited Poe’s cenotaph — a monument erected at the site of Poe’s original grave at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.  To commemorate Poe’s birthday each January 19th, this mysterious individual — known as the “Poe Toaster” — left three roses, a bottle of French cognac, and occasionally a note.  The clandestine visits ended in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Gone but “Nevermore” Forgotten

What object would you leave at the grave of an author or other famous person you admire, and what would you write in a note to that person?  Write an explanation of what you would leave at the grave of a person you admire along with an explanation of the object’s significance.  Also, include the contents of a note you would leave along with the object. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”— Arthur Conan Doyle, at a Poe Centennial Celebration Dinner in 1909

1-Judkis, Maura.  Edgar Allan Poe Toaster Tradition Is No More. Washington Post 19 Jan. 2012.

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. -Thomas Henry Huxley