The next part of the series - Initially Not A Psychologist ...
Hermann Ebbinghaus is one of the most significant figures of modern psychology and experimental psychology. He was the first psychologist to investigate learning and memory experimentally.
He is seen as the original genius in experimental psychology. His work on learning and forgetting was the first truly psychological experiment, one that was not a part of physiology. He, thus, considerably broadened the scope of experimental psychology. Ebbinghaus, however, was initially not a psychologist.
Initially being interested in studying history, Ebbinghaus shifted his interests to literature and then philosophy. In 1873, he received his doctoral degree in philosophy.
In 1876, Ebbinghaus bought a secondhand copy of Fechner’s book, Elements of Psychophysics. Gustav Theodor Fechner was a philosopher, physicist, and experimental psychologist as well as the founder of Psychophysics – the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation; the quantitative investigation of the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they affect. This book profoundly influenced the thinking of Ebbinghaus and developed his interest in psychology.
Ebbinghaus found Fechner’s mathematical approach to psychology to be very exciting. He admired the scientific precision of Fechner’s work on perception. He decided to apply the experimental method to study the higher mental processes; something that Wilhelm Wundt claimed was not possible. Thus, by investigating higher mental processes such as memory, he proved Wundt to be wrong and also changed the way in which association could be studied.
Ebbinghaus decided to investigate the formation of associations by learning serial lists of nonsense syllables, which are meaningless combinations of three letters, he invented for the purpose. He chose nonsense syllables because they are meaningless and that the sameness of their content would not affect the process of learning. He wanted to isolate and study memory as the pure function of learning, abstracting away any effects of content.
In 1885, Ebbinghaus published his work on memory as Ueber das Gedächtnis (Memory). In this, he described his methodology and findings, including the popular retention curve showing forgetting over time from initial acquisition. The work was widely acclaimed and even hailed by Wundt.
From the study of memory, Ebbinghaus moved on to study color vision. He also developed early versions of intelligence tests, anticipating by several years the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet.
In 1890, Ebbinghaus, with the physicist Arthur König founded the psychological journal called Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane (New Writings for the Psychology and Physiology of Sense Organs). The journal went on to become a highly acclaimed one.
In 1902, he published the highly successful general psychology textbook called Grundzüge der Psychologie (Foundations of Psychology). This book became the standard textbook for psychology in German universities, just like William James’s book Principles of Psychology was in American universities. In 1908, Ebbinghaus published Abriss der Psychologie (A Summary of Psychology), which became more popular than his previous book.
The research of Ebbinghaus showed that, contrary to prevailing beliefs, experimental methods could be applied to the study of the higher thought processes. His research brought objectivity, quantification, and experimentation to the study of learning, which is a topic central to modern psychology. It is due to Ebbinghaus that the concept of association changed from speculation to formal scientific investigation. Many of his conclusions about the nature of learning and memory remain valid even today.
Ebbinghaus did not make any theoretical contributions to psychology. He also did not leave behind any system or school of psychology; he was not even interested in doing so. However, his contributions to psychology are indelible.
His contributions to psychology are important not just in terms of the study of learning and memory, but also to experimental psychology as a whole. His contribution to the intellectual atmosphere of his times significantly helped in establishing psychology as a scientific enterprise.
Ebbinghaus began his career with a doctoral degree in philosophy. He became very excited after reading Fechner’s book, Elements of Psychophysics. He was highly influenced by that book, which led him to develop an interest in psychology. He then went on to become one of the greatest experimental psychologists and a major figure of modern psychology.