Column: Ebbinghaus

by Paul DeMerritt

Every second is a maelstrom of stimuli. Every waking moment, a furiously rotating cast of images, symbols, places, sounds, scents, faces, each tiny piece of information that coalesces as reality bombards our memory. For thousands of years, philosophers and scientists shuddered at the task of quantifying memory into something tangible. In his treatise On the Soul, Aristotle imagined the memory as a grand, blank tablet, defenseless to the etchings of daily life. Though his picture was reductionist, Aristotle’s educated guesses formed the most complete understanding of memory for thousands of years. But taking memory apart, glaring into its inner workings, humanizing the shroud and taming the maelstrom—that wasn’t touched until psychology was bubbling to the surface of scientific thought.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first person to pluck memory out of philosophy’s orbits and wedge it into the realm of empirical science. His challenges were enormous but his solutions were simple. He needed to test out memories devoid of any meaningful context, so he developed a series of over 2,000 nonsensical symbols that “were mixed together and then drawn out by chance and used to construct series of different lengths, several of which each time formed the material for a test.” Ebbinghaus meticulously memorized each of these symbols to perfection. He then put himself through a series of self-tests, quizzing himself on the arbitrary syllables and plotting out the quickness in which he lost and regained his knowledge. Today, his discoveries read as little more than common sense ideas easily taken for granted, yet humanity rarely makes use of them. Ebbinghaus proved that memory was more quickly encoded when attached to meaning, that more information necessitated more practice, and that relearning material made it more difficult to forget.

What many don’t realize now is that society constantly consumes but scarcely learns. How often do we pose this question of history repeating itself? Some may point to the mere fact that humans are naturally self-involved, divorced from the workings of the world, too spiraled into their own selfish aims to give history a nod. While applicable to some, this brand of pop-cynicism is fatally narrow-minded. A better question is why hasn’t the Internet saved us from ourselves? Why don’t we learn to avoid the pitfalls of our predecessors in the age where even the most disenfranchised have access to a boundless repository of history, a seemingly infinite maze of information?

It’s so simple that it’s almost criminal. When Ebbinghaus toiled over his inane alphabet, his mind was firmly planted into the present moment. His focus was singular, narrowed like a magnified sunbeam scorching an ant. The spoils of our technological excess have stretched our memories thin, spread out over a gauntlet of information and moving too quickly to sustain meaning. Our forgetting curves become forgetting slopes as our brains fight to attach meaning to information shot out with machine-gun frequency. In order to learn and break our cyclical prison, we must treat the present and the past like Ebbinghaus’ nonsensical syllables. At its core, history is nothing more than a series of arbitrary signifiers that only gain importance when we persistently practice its data, tirelessly glean relevance from its symbols, and perpetually bind it to our memories.