Ebbinghaus, Hermann

Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1850-1909) was a German experimental psychologist who performed highly original work in the study of memory and association. Ebbinghaus was born on Jan. 24, 1850, in Barmen, Germany. He entered the University of Bonn in 1867 at the age of 17. He studied history and philosophy at the universities of Bonn, Halle, and Berlin. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and he enlisted in the Prussian army. He later resumed his studies and received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Bonn in 1873. He then studied independently in Berlin, England, and France for seven years. In 1880, he became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. He became an assistant professor in 1886 and remained there until 1894, when he was appointed professor at the University of Breslau. While there, he established a laboratory and published a new method for testing the mental abilities of school children, called the “Ebbinghaus Completion Test,” or sentence completion test, which is still used today. In 1905, he became professor at the University of Halle.

Ebbinghaus demonstrated that learning and memory could be studied experimentally. Using himself as a subject for observation, Ebbinghaus came up with 2,300 consonant-vowel-consonant combinations, or nonsense syllables, for measuring the formation of mental associations. He used nonsense syllables because they had no pre-established meaning. From these experiments, Ebbinghaus concluded that memory is highly predictable. In assessing the retention of the nonsense syllables, he found that people rapidly forget what they have learned within the first few hours after learning it and more slowly after a passage of time. This was Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve, which he describes in his book Memory (German 1885; English 1913).

Ebbinghaus also studied color vision and, with physicist Arthur Konig, founded The Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs.

Ebbinghaus died on Feb. 26, 1909.