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Of all the higher mental processes, memory ranks up there as one of the most crucial. It helps us do rudimentary tasks such as turning on the toaster in the morning, grinding our coffee and meeting a friend at the right time. But it also helps us do more sophisticated things too: like solving complex problems, feeling love, reminiscing with family and telling stories about our lives. Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to do these things very well, if at all.
Updating Ebbinghaus on the Science of Memory
Eryn J. Newman*a, Elizabeth F. Loftusb
aVictoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. bUniversity of California, Irvine, USA.
Europe's Journal of Psychology, 2012, Vol. 8(2), 209–216, doi:10.5964/ejop.v8i2.453
Received: 2012-04-11. Published: 2012-05-31.
*Corresponding author at: Psychology & Social Behavior, Criminology, Law & Society, School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine, 2393
Social Ecology II, Irvine, Calif. 92697-7080 USA,
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License
(, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Of all the higher mental processes, memory ranks up there as one of the most crucial. It helps us do rudimentary
tasks such as turning on the toaster in the morning, grinding our coffee and meeting a friend at the right time. But
it also helps us do more sophisticated things too: like solving complex problems, feeling love, reminiscing with
family and telling stories about our lives. Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to do these things very well, if at
Psychological scientists have been studying memory experimentally for a mere 150 years or so, a much shorter
time than has lapsed since the beginning of experimental work in some other sciences such as astronomy or
physics. One of the early pioneers in the field of memory was Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who
is well known for his discovery of the forgetting curve after conducting experiments on himself using nonsense
syllables. Although he died in 1909, his legacy lives on in introductory psychology lectures all over the world.
You can imagine our shock when one day we received a letter from Ebbinghaus asking us what had happened
in the field of memory since his death over 100 years ago. We had so much to tell him, that we thought it would
be more efficient to have a personal conversation. We located Ebbinghaus and managed to arrange a quick Skype
conversation (Readers, please suspend for a few minutes your natural skepticism about our ability to Skype with
those who have passed on).
How we Study Memory these Days
It seemed appropriate to talk about the matter of how many subjects one typically sees in a memory study, so
this was the first issue on which we updated Ebbinghaus (who said we could call him Hermann). We told him that
we run experiments not on ourselves but with groups of subjects, and sometimes the groups are quite large. In
fact, one recent study involved over 2000 subjects whose memories of the events of September 11th were tested
(Hirst et al., 2009). We added that subjects are often diverse; students of psychology and members of the public,
young children, older adults and clinical populations including people suffering from depression and anxiety. “How
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do you find such diverse groups to study?” he asked. We explained that you can find them in train stations and
shopping malls (we had to explain that one), and other public places. But a great new source is to find the subjects
online. “Online?, is that in Europe?” he wondered. After explaining to him, the best we could, what the internet
was all about, we told him about one of its big advantages; researchers don’t even have to be in proximity of their
research subjects in order to run studies; they can be sitting at their offices writing manuscripts and preparing
teaching material and the study marches on. “That seems like a more efficient route to tenure” he quipped.
In our memory experiments today we ask people to study words or stories, watch events presented as movies,
and even have actors pretend to steal things during an experiment so we can study people’s memory for a crime.
After they do these tasks we measure people’s memory just like you did, by asking them to recall what they have
learned. But we can also do more sophisticated things too like measure how long it takes people to remember
information and examine people’s eye movements while they watch an event to measure what information they
attend to. We can also measure people’s heartbeat, and skin conductance (how much their hands sweat) to tell
us how distressed they are when recalling certain memories. Put simply, we have a sophisticated package of
tools that are helping us to unravel the mysteries of human memory. “Wow” Hermann said, “What else can you
measure?” We then explained that we can measure activity in the brain using electrodes that tell us when the
brain responds to certain stimuli. “That is amazing.” he gasped. But we also have tools that allow us to look inside
the brain. He looked baffled. We further explained that we can look inside the brain using technologies that allow
us to measure which areas in the brain are involved in performing a particular mental task. Using this technology,
we now know that when people remember an event from the past, specific areas in the brain are recruited when
we try to search for a memory, add details to it and relate the memory to ourselves (See Cabeza & St. Jacques,
2007 for a review). “How fascinating. It sounds like science fiction” he said.
We told Hermann that this technology has also helped us understand what people use memory for. They use it,
for example, when they imagine their future. Researchers have asked what happens in the brain when you imagine
and insert yourself in future scenarios, like taking a vacation, graduating from university, or your wedding day.
This research has told us that the act of imagining future events recruits similar brain regions to recalling past
events (see Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2007;Szpunar, Watson, & McDermott, 2007). Hermann wondered out
loud, “ does that mean in 2012 scientists think that imagining the future is the same as remembering?” Not
quite, we told him. The idea is that people use memories from past events as the raw materials for future thinking,
but they must go beyond just remembering past events (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). They must reorganize
and reconstruct past details to create a novel future scenario—much like producing a counterfactual for the past
where we recombine elements of a past event to consider how it could have happened differently (Schacter &
Addis, 2007;Suddendorf & Corballis 1997; see Szpunar, 2010 for a review; counterfactuals see Byrne, 2002).
“So....” Hermann contemplated “...looking inside the brain can also tell you how people use memory in other tasks,
like thinking about the future?” “What on earth is next?”
We told him that these days we don’t just look inside the brain, we can also tweak the processes in the brain that
are crucial to memory. Advances in biotechnology have meant that we can look at ways to improve memory by
targeting it at a biological level. One way to improve memory is to ask how we can remove unwanted memories.
We suggested to Hermann that he was probably aware that when people experience horrible events, sometimes
they remember them too well. We now know for instance, that when people remember trauma too well, they can
experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) where they are haunted by memories of a traumatic event
via flashbacks, nightmares, and intense physical reactions such as elevated heart rate when they encounter
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Updating Ebbinghaus on the Science of Memory 210
reminders of the traumatic event (APA, 1994). These people wish they could forget and there might be a pill that
can help them. There is growing evidence that giving people propranolol (a beta-blocker and “memory dampening
drug”) after a traumatic event can lead people to remember the trauma less intensely—it can dull the emotion
associated with that memory—and reduce the incidence of PTSD (Brunet et al., 2008;Cahill, Prins, Weber, &
McGaugh, 1994;Pitman et al., 2002;Reist, Duffy, Fujimoto, & Cahill, 2001; see also Schiller et al., 2010). “I don’t
know if I like this idea...” Hermann said....“should we be doing these things...what are the consequences of this
so-called dampening of memory?”
Well we said, pundits, philosophers and legal scholars have asked the same question and pondered whether
dampening negative memories would actually harm us (see Kolber, 2006). Indeed, the President’s Council on
Bioethics (2003) raised many concerns about memory dampening drugs. They cautioned that deleting or dulling
memories would affect our sense of identity—our memories make us who we are (President’s Council on Bioethics,
2003; see also Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000;James, 1890/1950;Neisser, 1988;Wilson & Ross, 2003). In
fact, Hermann, the general public of today may share your sentiments, we said. In one study people imagined
experiencing a traumatic event and considered whether they would want to take a memory dampening drug to
help guard against the risk of developing PTSD. Although people wanted the choice to take the drug, most said
they would not take it themselves (Newman, Berkowitz, Nelson, Garry, & Loftus, 2011). Legal scholars have also
expressed concerns about deleting or dampening memory and raised important ethical issues—should a victim
of a serious assault have the right to be free from traumatic memory, or do they have a societal obligation to
remember the crime so that perpetrators can be identified later (Kolber, 2006)? This issue of memory dampening
is one of many that comes up under the rubric of cosmetic neurology—the idea that we can craft the perfect brain,
just like we can craft the perfect body through cosmetic surgery. There are drugs to dampen memory, but also
ones to perfect it. If citizens start taking truly effective memory boosters or enhancers, perhaps to the point of
having near perfect memories, what kind world would it be? “I don’t want to live in that world. ” Hermann said.
“...what would be the fate for my forgetting curve.”
The Malleability of Memory
Well, you know what Hermann, we responded. As much as these technologies would provide more fine grained
control over what we remember, the brain is pretty good at editing events already. In fact, we are biased to
remember aspects of our life as more positive and successful than they really were (see Ross & Wilson, 2002).
For example, people remember gaining better grades than they really did in high school (Bahrick, Hall, & Berger,
1996; see also Gramzow & Willard, 2006). “Why would people do this?” he wondered. We explained that it might
be that remembering the past in a rosy way is actually pretty good for us, in fact we tend to do it when we think
about the future too (D’Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2006;Newby-Clark & Ross, 2003; see also Szpunar, Addis,
& Schacter, 2012). As we mentioned earlier there is a strong link between memory and the self and rosy
remembering of our own lives can serve to maintain a positive sense of self (e.g. Ross & Wilson, 2002). Recalling
the past in a negative way, a pattern observed with depressed individuals, might serve to do the opposite (Bradley,
Mogg, & Williams, 1995;Ridout, Astell, Reid, Glen, & O’Caroll, 2003; for a review see Mineka & Nugent 1995).
That the brain edits our pasts in a positive light is healthy to the extent that it can promote a positive—though
illusory—view of the self (see Ross & Wilson, 2002;Newman & Lindsay, 2009).
What we told Hermann next was even more surprising to him, namely, that when the human brain distorts memory
in this way, these revisions often feel like a veridical version of the past. From our own experience we know that
when we recollect the past it often brings with it a sense of being inserted back in time, as though we are
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Newman & Loftus 211
re-experiencing that moment (Tulving, 1983,2002). Although often full with perceptual information and details
about who was present and what happened, our memory for the past is not a rigid retelling of prior experience.
Rather, we have learned that memory is a story with a flexible narrative that can improve, sharpen and distort
prior experience. We stressed to Hermann that to recall the past is vastly different from playing back a mental
videotape. We have learned that people can have the experience of remembering a real event—what comes to
mind shares all the features of a real memory—when what they remember is wrong, full of incorrect details, and
at times even completely inaccurate.
For example, after learning about a shocking emotional public event like the death of a politician or the start of a
war, people often have the subjective experience of remembering exactly where they were and what they were
doing when they heard the news (Brown & Kulik, 1977;Hirst et al., 2009;Neisser & Harsch, 1992). But people
are often wrong, initially reporting they first heard the news at school from a friend and later remembering that
they first heard it at home while watching the television. Moreover, people believe their inaccurate memories and
are surprised when they see their initial reports (Neisser & Harsch, 1992; see Talarico & Rubin, 2003). We also
noted that memory can deceive us in even more dramatic ways; asking people to review old photographs or
imagine childhood events can lead them to have rich, detailed filled memories for entire events that never occurred
(Garry, Manning, Loftus, & Sherman, 1996;Hyman & Pentland, 1996;Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, & Garry,
2004;Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). So we reiterated to Hermann that when we try to remember something, we
reconstruct, rather than playback; The information that comes to mind it not always what we are trying to retrieve—it
can be a mix of prior knowledge, information from a number of related events and ideas or thoughts we have had
about the event since it occurred (for a review of false memory research see Garry & Hayne, 2006;Loftus, 2003;
Schacter, 2001). As noted in a recent book review covering the history of memory research: “The thing we feel
sure makes us ourselves (no memory, no me) is also something we know to be treacherous, over-accommodating,
fugitive: delightfully and fearfully unreliable.” (Diski, 2012).
Although the brain can do a good job of editing without us detecting its revisions, there is also a category of revised
memories that we know are completely false. Out of curiosity, we asked Hermann whether he had a memory that
he knew was false. Some of us “remember” fairytale events such as Santa climbing down the chimney and some
of us recall more realistic, but implausible childhood events such as feeding a family pet—that had died before
we were born. People often do this, and sometimes it can be embarrassing. Mitt Romney, one of the 2012
candidates for the Republican nomination to the U.S Presidency described his memory of attending the Automotive
Golden Jubilee, a large public event in June of 1946. The problem is Romney was born in March of 1947, so he
couldn’t possibly have been there (Potter, 2012, February 27). People have memories of all sorts of things that
they know are completely false. In a recent study Mazzoni, Scoboria, and Harvey (2010) found that 20% of their
subjects had a rich recollection of an event they knew never happened.
In fact these non-believed memories are so fascinating that they have become the subject of art. Hermann said
”...well, artists have been intrigued by memory for a long time, but none knew of the perils that you describe.” We
told Hermann that Alasdair Hopwood and the WiTH Collective hope to depict these perils in their artwork. They
have created a website for people to submit their non-believed false memories to display in an art exhibition.1As
of early 2012, Alasdair had collected over 300 non-believed memories, that range from remembering losing a
shoe in a river to remembering a family pet being hit by a car. As flexible as the memory system can be, it might
be pretty difficult to get rid of some memories. What do people do when they have a non-believed memory? If it
is about remembering Santa they can entertain others with its implausibility. But what if that memory hurts the
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Updating Ebbinghaus on the Science of Memory 212
rememberer and it is about a more upsetting event? Then it might cause harm. We have talked about research
investigating how we can remove memory for real negative events, but perhaps, people will start to consider
whether we should also be contemplating the same for known false events? After all, there is evidence that
distressing memories, true or false, can produce the same psychophysiological stress response (McNally et al.,
“Well”, Hermann said, “ you have made some pretty astonishing advances in the science of memory. But some
old ideas still seem to ring true. A fellow academic of my time, Friedrich Nietzsche once said that without forgetting,
it is quite impossible to live at all (Nietzsche, 1980, p.10). Indeed, it seems that even in your day, forgetting might
be one of the most important attributes of human memory, but then again, I am biased.”
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About the Authors
Elizabeth Loftus is Distinguished Professor at the University of California - Irvine. She holds faculty positions in
three departments (Psychology & Social Behavior; Criminology, Law & Society; and Cognitive Sciences), and in
the School of Law. She has authored several hundred articles on the malleability of human memory, published
22 books and has been honoured with six honorary doctorates and election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh,
the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. She is past president of the Association
for Psychological Science, the Western Psychological Association, and the American Psychology-Law Society.
Eryn Newman is a graduate student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. She is currently visiting
the University of California, Irvine as Fulbright Scholar.
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Updating Ebbinghaus on the Science of Memory 216
... Using this measure Ebbinghaus was able to devise his famous forgetting curve relating percent savings to retention interval. [48,49]. ...
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Driven by both technological advances and the onset of COVID, online resources have become ever more integrated into modern education. However, foreign language learning has been especially difficult in a virtual environment because the high degree of interactivity and adaptation necessary of language learning is often absent from online tools. Existing online resources which are popular among foreign language students – ranging from the self-study app Duolingo to the flashcard app Quizlet – all carry substantial shortfalls. Namely, these systems are individual-based and lack the collaboration between parents, students, and teachers which is often vital to student success. Utilizing relevant psychological principles, we consider the algorithmic and interface aspects of a prototype design for a Chinese learning application which can be integrated into the classroom to promote support between parents and students. We also conducted cognitive walkthrough and heuristic evaluation to assess the usability of the prototype’s interface. The results found that the interface was majorly intuitive despite some minor violation of heuristic principles.
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La mémoire est un concept central pour la justice. Enquêteurs et magistrats se basent en partie sur des témoignages afin de reconstruire la chronologie des faits, et que la vérité se manifeste. Pourtant, de très nombreuses études ont mis en avant la fragilité de la mémoire humaine. Ainsi, lors de l’instruction, il revient aux experts psychologues et psychiatres de souligner tous biais mnésiques de nature à influencer les décisions de justice. Nous avons donc évalué les connaissances et les croyances desdits experts (n = 120) sur la mémoire, en les comparant à celles de psychologues et psychiatres non-experts (n = 101), et à celles d’individus du grand public (n = 402). Les experts avaient moins de connaissances, le même niveau de croyances et plus d’incertitudes concernant la mémoire que les deux autres groupes. L’implication pratique de ces résultats est discutée et des recommandations sont formulées. ABSTRACT Memory is a key concept to justice. Investigators and judges often have to rely on episodic reports to establish the truth about criminal events. Yet, a considerable amount of studies stressed how much memory may be unreliable. That is why expert witnesses have to highlight any memory bias that can impair the memory and therefore impact judicial outcomes. We assessed the knowledge of expert witnesses (n = 120) about memory by comparing it with the knowledge of non-expert psychologists and psychiatrists (n = 101) and of the general public (n = 402). We found that expert witnesses had less knowledge and more uncertainties than non-expert practitioners and than the general public, and similar beliefs were observed among the three groups. Practical consequences of these outcomes are discussed and recommendations towards expert witnesses and judges are provided.
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This article contains the argument that the human ability to travel mentally in time constitutes a discontinuity between ourselves and other animals. Mental time travel comprises the mental reconstruction of personal events from the past (episodic memory) and the mental construction of possible events in the future. It is not an isolated module, but depends on the sophistication of other cognitive capacities, including self-awareness, meta-representation, mental attribution, understanding the perception-knowledge relationship, and the ability to dissociate imagined mental states from one's present mental state. These capacities are also important aspects of so-called theory of mind, and they appear to mature in children at around age 4. Furthermore, mental time travel is generative, involving the combination and recombination of familiar elements, and in this respect may have been a precursor to language. Current evidence, although indirect or based on anecdote rather than on systematic study, suggests that nonhuman animals, including the great apes, are confined to a "present" that is limited by their current drive states. In contrast, mental time travel by humans is relatively unconstrained and allows a more rapid and flexible adaptation to complex, changing environments than is afforded by instincts or conventional learning. Past and future events loom large in much of human thinking, giving rise to cultural, religious, and scientific concepts about origins, destiny, and time itself.
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Counterfactual imaginings are known to have far-reaching implications. In the present experiment, we ask if imagining events from one's past can affect memory for childhood events. We draw on the social psychology literature showing that imagining a future event increases the subjective likelihood that the event will occur. The concepts of cognitive availability and the source-monitoring framework provide reasons to expect that imagination may inflate confidence that a childhood event occurred. However, people routinely produce myriad counterfactual imaginings (i.e., daydreams and fantasies) but usually do not confuse them with past experiences. To determine the effects of imagining a childhood event, we pretested subjects on how confident they were that a number of childhood events had happened, asked them to imagine some of those events, and then gathered new confidence measures. For each of the target items, imagination inflated confidence that the event had occurred in childhood. We discuss implications for situations in which imagination is used as an aid in searching for presumably lost memories.
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The ability to mentally simulate hypothetical scenarios is a rapidly growing area of research in both psychology and neuroscience. Episodic future thought, or the ability to simulate specific personal episodes that may potentially occur in the future, represents one facet of this general capacity that continues to garner a considerable amount of interest. The purpose of this article is to elucidate current knowledge and identify a number of unresolved issues regarding this specific mental ability. In particular, this article focuses on recent research findings from neuroimaging, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology that have demonstrated a close relation between episodic future thought and the ability to remember personal episodes from one's past. On the other hand, considerations of the role of abstracted (semantic) representations in episodic future thought have been noticeably absent in the literature. The final section of this article proposes that both episodic and semantic memory play an important role in the construction of episodic future thoughts and that their interaction in this process may be determined by the relative accessibility of information in memory. © The Author(s) 2010.
Supporting predictions from temporal self-appraisal theory, participants in 3 studies reported feeling farther from former selves and experiences with unfavorable implications for their current self-view than from equally distant selves and experiences with flattering implications. This distancing bias occurred when assignment to negative and positive pasts was random, for both achievement and social outcomes and for single episodes as well as longer term experiences. Consistent with a motivational interpretation, the distancing bias was stronger among high than low self-esteem participants and occurred for personal but not for acquaintances' past events. Frequency of rehearsal and ease of recall of past episodes also predicted feelings of distance, but these variables did not account for the Self-Esteem × Valence interaction on subjective distancing of personal events.