Psychology - A Study Of Mental Life
by Robert S. Woodworth
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The same negative results are obtained even with monkeys, but the chimpanzee shows some signs of learning by observation. One chimpanzee having learned to extract a banana from a long tube by pushing it out of the further end with a stick which the experimenter had kindly left close by, another chimpanzee was placed where he could watch the first one's performance and did watch it closely. Then the first animal was taken away and the second given a chance. He promptly took the stick and got the banana, without, however, imitating the action of the first animal exactly, but pulling the banana towards him till he could reach it. This has been called learning by imitation, but might better be described as learning by observation.

Such behavior, quite rare among animals, is common in human children, who are very observant of what older people do, and imitate them on the first opportunity, though often this comes after an interval. The first time a child speaks a new word is usually not right after he has heard it. When, on previous occasions, he has heard this word, he has not attempted to copy it, but now he brings it out of himself. He has not acquired the word by direct imitation, evidently, but by what has been called "delayed imitation", which consists in observation at the time followed later by attempts to do what has been observed. Observation does not altogether relieve the child of the necessity of learning by trial and error, for often his first imitations are pretty poor attempts; but observation gives him a good start and hastens the learning process considerably. "Learning by imitation", then, is, more properly, "learning by observation followed by trial and error" and the reason so little of it appears in animals is their lack of observation.

Learning by thinking depends on observation, since in {320} thought we make use of facts previously observed. Seldom, unless in the chimpanzee and other manlike apes, do we see an animal that appears to be thinking. The animal is always doing, or waiting, or sleeping. He seems too impulsive to stop and think. But a man may observe something in the present problem that calls previous observations to mind, and by mentally combining observations made at different times may figure out the solution before beginning motor manipulation. Usually, however, some manipulation of the trial and error sort is needed before the thought-out solution will work perfectly.

Sometimes mental rehearsal of a performance assists in learning it, as we see in the beginner at automobile driving, who, while lying in bed after his first day's experience, mentally goes through the motions of starting the engine and then the car, and finds that this "absent treatment" makes the car easier to manage the next day.

In summing up the points of superiority of human over animal learning, we may note that—

1. Man is perhaps a quicker learner, anyway, without regard to his better methods of learning. This, however, is open to doubt, in view of the very rapid learning by animals of such reactions as the avoidance of a place where they have been hurt.

2. Man is a better observer, and this is the great secret of his quick learning. He is especially strong in observing relationships, or "principles" as we often call them.

3. He has more control over his impulses, and so finds time and energy for observing and thinking.

4. He is able to work mentally with things that are not present; he remembers things he has seen, puts together facts observed at different times, thinks over problems that are not actually confronting him at the moment, and maps out plans of action.


The Learning of Complex Practical Performances

A great deal of light has been thrown on the learning process by psychological studies of the course of improvement in mastering such trades as telegraphy and typewriting.

A student of telegraphy was tested once a week to see how rapidly he could send a message, and also how rapidly he could "receive a message off the wire", by listening to the clicking of the sounder. The number of letters sent or received per minute was taken as the measure of his proficiency. This number increased rapidly in the first few weeks, and then more and more slowly, giving a typical learning curve, or "practice curve", as it is also called.

The curve for sending, aside from minor irregularities, rose with a fairly smooth sweep, tapering off finally towards the "physiological limit", the limit of what the nerves and muscles of this individual could perform.

[Footnote: A good example of the physiological limit is seen in the hundred yard dash, since apparently no one, with the best of training, can lower the record much below ten seconds; and any given individual's limit may be considerably worse than this, according to his build, muscular strength and quickness of nerve centers. The simple reaction gives another good example; every one has his limit, beyond which no amount of training will lower his reaction time; the neuromuscular system simply will not work any faster.]

The receiving {322} curve rose more slowly than the sending curve, and flattened out after about four months of practice, showing little further improvement for the next two months. This was a discouraging time for the student, for it seemed as if he could never come up to the commercial standard. In fact, many learners drop out at this stage. But this student persisted, and, after the long period of little improvement, was gratified to find his curve going up rapidly again. It went up rapidly for several months, and when it once more tapered off into a level, he was well above the minimum standard for regular employment.

Such a flat stretch in a practice curve, followed by a second rise—such a period of little or no improvement, followed by rapid improvement—is called a "plateau". Sometimes due to mere discouragement, or to the inattention that naturally supervenes when an act becomes easy to perform, it often has a different cause. It may, in fact, represent a true physiological limit for the act as it is being performed, and the subsequent rise to a higher level may result from improved methods of work. That was probably the case with the telegrapher.

[Footnote: A plateau of this sort is present in the learning curve for mastery of a puzzle, given on p. 316.]

The telegrapher acquires skill by improving his methods, rather than by simply speeding up. He acquires methods that he didn't dream of at first. At the start, he must learn the alphabet of dots and dashes. This means, for purposes of sending, that he must learn the little rhythmical pattern of finger movements that stands for each letter; and, for purposes of receiving, that he must learn the rhythmical {323} pattern of clicks from the sounder that stands for a letter. When he has learned the alphabet, he is able to send and receive slowly. In sending, he spells out the words, writing each letter as a separate act. In receiving, at this early stage, he must pick out each separate letter from the continuous series of clicks that he hears from the sounder. By degrees, the letters become so familiar that he goes through this spelling process easily; and, doing now so much better than at the outset, he supposes he has learned the trade, in its elements, and needs only to put on more speed.

But not at all! He has acquired but a small part of the necessary stock-in-trade of the telegrapher. He has his "letter habits", but knows nothing as yet of "word habits". These gradually come to him as he continues his practice. He comes to know words as units, motor units for sending purposes, auditory units for receiving. The rhythmical pattern of the whole word becomes a familiar unit. Short, much used words are first dealt with as units, then more and more words, till he has a large vocabulary of word habits. A word that has become a habit need not be spelled out in sending, nor laboriously dug out letter by letter in receiving; you simply think the word "train", and your finger taps it out as a connected unit; or, in receiving, you recognize the characteristic pattern of this whole series of clicks. When the telegrapher has reached this word habit stage, he finds the new method far superior, in both speed and sureness, to the letter habit method which he formerly assumed to be the whole art of telegraphy. He does not even stop with word habits, but acquires a similar control over familiar phrases.

Higher Units and Overlapping

The acquisition of skill in telegraphy consists mostly in learning these higher units of reactions. It is the same in {324} learning to typewrite. First you must learn your alphabet of letter-striking movements; by degrees you reduce these finger movements to firm habits, and are then in the letter-habit stage, in which you spell out each word as you write it. After a time, you write a familiar word without spelling it, by a cooerdinated series of finger movements; you write by word units, and later, in part, by phrase units; and these higher units give you speed and accuracy.

Along with this increase in the size of the reaction-units employed goes another factor of skill that is really very remarkable. This is the "overlapping" of different reactions, a species of doing two or more things at once, only that the two or more reactions are really parts of the same total activity. The simplest sort of overlap can be illustrated at an early stage in learning to typewrite. The absolute beginner at the typewriter, in writing "and", pauses after each letter to get his bearings before starting on the next; but after a small amount of practice he will locate the second letter on the keyboard while his finger is still in the act of striking the first letter. Thus the sensory part of the reaction to the second letter commences before the motor part of reacting to the first letter is finished; and this overlap does away with pauses between letters and makes the writing smoother and more rapid.

With further practice in typewriting, when word habits and phrase habits are acquired, overlap goes to much greater lengths. One expert kept her eyes on the copy about four words ahead of her fingers on the keyboard, and thus was reacting to about four words at the same time: one word was just being read from the copy, one word was being written, and the two words between were being organized and prepared for actual writing. The human typewriting mechanism, consisting of eye, optic nerve, parts of the brain and cord, motor nerves and muscles, works somewhat like one of {325} those elaborate machines which receive raw material steadily at one end perform a series of operations upon it, and keep turning out finished product at the other end.

All this is very remarkable, but the same sort of overlapping and working with large units can be duplicated in many linguistic performances that every one makes. In reading aloud, the eyes keep well ahead of the voice, and seeing, understanding and pronouncing are all applied simultaneously to different words of the passage read. In talking, the ideas keep developing and the spoken words tag along behind.

In telegraphy and typewriting, it is almost inevitable that the learner should start with the alphabet and proceed to gradually larger units. But in learning to talk, or to read, the process goes the other way. The child understands spoken words and phrases before breaking them up into their elementary vocal sounds; and he can better be taught to read by beginning with whole words, or even with whole {326} sentences, than by first learning the alphabet and laboriously spelling out the words. In short, the learning process often takes its start with the higher units, and reaches the smaller elements only for the purpose of more precise control.

Moderate Skill Acquired in the Ordinary Day's Work

Merely repeating a performance many times does not give the high degree of skill that we see in the expert telegrapher or typist. Ordinarily, we practise much less assiduously, are much less zealous, and have no such perfect measure of the success of our work. For "practice to make perfect", it must be strongly motivated, and it must be sharply checked up by some index or measure of success or failure. If the success of a performance can be measured, and chalked up before the learner's eyes in the form of a practice curve, so that he can see his progress, this acts as a strong incentive to rapid improvement.

Ordinarily, we have no clear indication of exactly how well we are doing, and are satisfied if we get through our job easily and without too much criticism and ridicule from people around. Consequently we reach only a moderate degree of skill, nowhere near the physiological limit, and do not acquire the methods of the real expert.

This is very true of the manual worker. Typesetters of ten or more years' experience were once selected as subjects for an experiment on the effects of alcohol, because it was assumed that they must have already reached their maximum skill. In regard to alcohol, the result was that this drug caused a falling off in speed and accuracy of work—but that is another story. What we are interested in here is the fact that, as soon as these long-practised operators found themselves under observation, and their work measured, they all began to improve and in the course of a couple of weeks {327} reached quite a new level of performance. Their former level had been reasonably satisfactory under workaday conditions, and special incentive was needed to make them approach their limit.

A similar condition of affairs has been disclosed by "motion studies" in many kinds of manual work; the movements of the operative have been photographed or closely examined by the efficiency expert, and analyzed to determine whether there are any superfluous movements that could be eliminated, and whether a different method of work would be economical of time and effort. Usually, superfluous motion has been found and considerable economy seen to be possible. There is evidently no law of learning to the effect that continued repetition of a performance necessarily makes it perfect in speed, ease, or adaptation to the task in hand. What the manual worker attains as the result of prolonged experience is a passable performance, but not at all the maximum of skill.

The brain worker has little to brag of as against the manual worker. He, too, is only moderately efficient in doing his particular job. There are brilliant exceptions—bookkeepers who add columns of figures with great speed and precision, students who know just how to put in two hours of study on a lesson with the maximum of effect, writers who always say just what they wish to say and hit the nail on the head every time—but the great majority of us are only passable. We need strong incentive, we need a clear and visible measure of success or failure, we need, if such a thing were possible, a practice curve before us to indicate where we stand at the present moment with respect to our past and our possible future.



A habit is contrasted with a reflex, in that the reflex is native, the habit acquired; but both are alike in being prompt and automatic reactions. The best antithesis to a habit is the response of a person to a novel situation, where neither nature nor previous experience gives him a ready response. The new response is exploratory and tentative, while habit is fixed and definite. The new response is variable, the habit regular. The new response is slow and uncertain, the habit fairly quick and accurate. The new response is attended by effort and strained attention, the habit is easy and often only half-conscious. The new response is apt to be unsatisfying to the one who makes it, while habit is comfortable and a source of satisfaction.

To break a habit is most uncomfortable. Nature—at least that "second nature" which is habit—calls aloud for the customary performance. Strenuous effort is required to get out of the rut, and the slipping back into the rut which is almost sure to occur in moments of inadvertence is humiliating. Result—usually the habit sticks.

But if the habit simply must be broken? Breaking a habit is forming a counter-habit, and the more positive the counter-habit the better for us. This counter-habit must not be left to form itself, but must be practised diligently. Strong motivation is necessary, no half-hearted acquiescence in somebody else's injunction to get rid of the habit. We must adopt the counter-habit as ours, and work for a high standard of skill in it. For example, if we come to realize that we have a bad habit of grouchiness with our best friends, it is of little use merely to attempt to deaden this habit; we need to aim at being a positive addition to the company whenever we are present, and to practise the art of being good company, checking up our efforts to be sure we are hitting {329} the right vein, and persisting in our self-training till we become real artists. It takes some determination for a grouchy individual to make such a revolution in his conduct; his self-assertion resists violently, for the grouchiness is part and parcel of himself and he hates to be anything but himself. He must conceive a new and inspiring ideal of himself, and start climbing up the practice curve towards the new ideal.



1. Outline the chapter.

2. Which of the acts performed in eating breakfast are instinctive, which are matters of habit, and which are partly the one and partly the other?

3. Compare your mental attitude in approaching an unfamiliar and a familiar task.

4. How does the performance of the expert in swimming or dancing, etc., differ from the performance of the beginner? Analyze out the points of superiority.

5. Show that the element of trial and error is present in (a) the child's learning to pronounce a word, and (b) learning "how to take" a person so as to get on well with him.

6. Why is it that our handwriting, though exercised so much, is apt to grow worse rather than better, while on the contrary our spelling is apt to improve?

7. How would you rate your efficiency in study? Is it near your physiological limit, on a plateau, or in a stage of rapid improvement?

8. A practice experiment. Take several pages of uniform printed matter, and mark it off into sections of 15 lines. Take your time for marking every word in one section that contains both e and r. The two letters need not be adjacent, but must both be present somewhere In the word. Having recorded your time for this first section, do the same thing with the next section, and so on for 12 sections. What were you able to observe, introspectively, of your method of work and changes with practice. From the objective observations, construct a practice curve.

9. Write brief explanations of the following terms: practice habit higher unit overlapping plateau physiological limit insight trial and error negative adaptation substitute stimulus substitute response conditioned reflex



Thorndike's Animal Intelligence, Experimental Studies, 1911, reports his own pioneer work in this field. See also Chapter X in the same author's Educational Psychology, Briefer Course, 1914.

For other reviews of the work on animal learning, see Watson's Behavior, 1914, pp. 184-250; also Washburn's Animal Mind, 2nd edition, 1917, pp. 257-312.

For human learning and practice, see Thorndike's Educational Psychology, Briefer Course, 1914, Chapters XIV and XV; also Starch's Educational Psychology, 1919, Chapter XI.

For an experiment showing the acquisition of fears by a child, see Watson and Raynor, "Conditioned Emotional Reactions", in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1920, Vol. 3, pp. 1-14.

James's chapter on "Habit", in his Principles of Psychology, 1890, Vol. I, is a classic which every one should read.





So much depends on a good memory in all walks of life, and especially in brain work of any sort, that perhaps it is no wonder that many students and business and professional men become worried about their memories and resort to "memory training courses" in the hope of improvement. The scientific approach to this very practical problem evidently lies through a careful study of the way in which memory works, and the general problem may be expressed in the question, how we learn and remember. This large problem breaks up, on analysis, into four subordinate questions: how we commit to memory, how we retain what has been committed to memory, how we get it back when we want it, and how we know that what we now get back is really what we formerly committed to memory. In the case of a person's name which we wish to remember, how do we "fix it in mind", how do we carry it around with us when we are not thinking of it, how do we call it up when needed, and what assures us that we have called up the right name? The four problems may be named those of

(1) Memorizing, or learning, (2) Retention (3) Recall (4) Recognition


The Process of Memorizing

As memorizing is one sort of learning, what we have found in the preceding chapter regarding the learning process should throw light on our present problem. We found animals to learn by doing, and man by doing and also by observation or observation combined with doing. Observation is itself a form of doing, a mental reaction as distinguished from a purely passive or receptive state; so that learning is always active. Observation we found to be of great assistance, both by way of hastening the learning process, and by way of making what is learned more available for future use. Our previous studies of learning thus lead us to inquire whether committing to memory may not consist partly in rehearsing what we wish to learn, and partly in observing it. Learning by rote, or by merely repeating a performance over and over again, is, indeed, a fact; and observant study is also a fact.

Let us see how learning is actually done, as indicated by laboratory experiments. The psychologist experiments a great deal with the memorizing of nonsense material, because the process can be better observed here, from the beginning, than when sensible material is learned. Suppose a list of twenty one-place numbers is to be studied till it can be recited straight through. The learner may go at it simply by "doing", which means here by reading the list again and again, in the hope that it will finally stick. This pure rote learning will perhaps do the job, but it is slow and inefficient. Usually the learner goes to work in quite a different way. He observes various facts about the list. He notices what numbers occur at the beginning and end, and perhaps in other definite positions. He may group the digits into two-place or three-place numbers, and notice the characteristics of these. Any familiar combinations that {334} may occur, such as 1492, he is likely to spy and remember. Lacking these, he can at least find similar and contrasting number-groups.

For example, the list

5 7 4 0 6 2 7 3 5 1 4 0 9 2 8 6 3 8 0 1,

which at first sight seemed rather bare of anything characteristic, was analyzed in a way partly indicated by the commas and semicolons,

5, 74, 0; 62, 73; 5140; 9, 286; 380, 1,

and memorized easily. These observed facts transformed the list from a shapeless mass into something having definite characteristics, and the observed characteristics stuck in mind and held the rest together.

Lists of nonsense syllables, such as

wok pam zut bip seg ron taz vis lab mer koj yad

are apt to be learned largely by observation of similarities and contrasts, by reading meanings into the syllables, and by grouping into pairs and reading rhythmically. Grouping reduces the twelve syllables to six two-syllabled nonsense words, some of which may suggest meaningful words or at least have a swing that makes them easy to remember. Perhaps the first syllable of every pair is accented, and a pause introduced after each pair; such devices assist memorizing.

The rhythmical and other groups that are found or made by the learner in memorizing nonsense lists are, in effect, "higher units", and have much the same value as the higher units of telegraphy or typewriting. One who learns many lists in the course of a laboratory experiment develops a {335} regular system of grouping. First he reads the list through, in groups of two, three or four items, noticing each group as a whole; later, he notices the items in each group and how they are related to each other. He also notices the interrelations of different groups, and the position of each group in the total series. All this is quite different from a mere droning along through the items of the list; it is much more active, and much more observant.

Very interesting are the various ways in which the learner attacks a list of nonsense syllables, numbers, or disconnected words. He goes to work something like the cat trying to escape from a strange cage. He proceeds by a sort of trial and error observation; he keeps looking for something about the list that will help to fix it. He sees something that promises well for a moment, then gives it up because he sees something better. He notices positions, i.e., connects items with their position in the list. He finds syllables that stand out as peculiar in some way, being "odd", "fuzzy", smooth, agreeable, disagreeable, or resembling some word, abbreviation or nickname. He notes resemblances and contrasts between different syllables. He also finds groups that resemble each other, or that resemble words.

Besides what he actually finds in the list, he imports meanings, more or less far-fetched, into the list. He may make a rhythmical line of verse out of it; he may make a story out of it. In short, he both explores the list as it stands and manipulates it into some shape that promises to be rememberable.

His line of attack differs according to the particular test that is later to be made of his memory. Suppose he is shown a number of pictures, with the understanding that later those now shown are to be mixed with others, and that he must then pick out those now shown—then he simply examines each picture for something characteristic. But {336} suppose each picture is given a name, and he must later tell the name of each—then he seeks for something in the picture that can be made to suggest its name. Or suppose, once more, that the pictures are spread out before him in a row, and he is told that they will later be mixed and he be required to rearrange them in the same order in which they are now shown—then he seeks for relationships between the several pictures. His process of memorizing, always observant, exploratory and manipulatory, differs in detail according to the memory task that he expects later to perform.

For another example, suppose an experiment is conducted by the method of "paired associates". The subject is handed a list of pairs of words, such as

soprano emblem grassy concise nothing ginger faraway kettle shadow next mercy scrub hilltop internal recite shoestring narrative thunder seldom harbor jury eagle windy occupy squirm hobby balloon multiply necktie unlikely supple westbound obey inch broken relish spellbound ferment desert expect

He must learn to respond with the second word of each pair when the first word of the pair is given. What he does, in learning this lesson, is to take each pair of words as a unit, and try to find something in the pair that shall make it a firm unit. It may be simply the peculiar sound or look of a pair that he notes, or it may be some connection {337} of meaning. Perhaps the pair suggests an image or a little story. After a few readings, he has the pairs so well in hand that he can score almost one hundred per cent., if tested immediately.

But now suppose the experimenter springs a surprise, by asking the subject, as far as possible, to recite the pairs in order, or to tell, after completing one pair, what was the first word of the next pair. The subject can do very little at this, and protests that the test is not fair, since he "paid no attention to the order of the pairs, but concentrated wholly on each pair separately". Had he expected to recite the whole list of pairs in order, he would have noticed the relationship of successive pairs, and perhaps woven them into a sort of continued story.

In memorizing connected passages of prose or poetry, the "facts observed" are the general sense and drift of the passage, the meanings of the parts and their places in the general scheme, the grammatical structure of the sentences and phrases, and the author's choice of particular words. Memorizing here is the same general sort of observant procedure as with nonsense material, greatly assisted by the familiar sequences of words and by the connected meaning of the passage, so that a connected passage can be learned in a fraction of the time needed to memorize an equally long list of unrelated words. No one in his senses would undertake to memorize an intelligible passage by the pure rote method, for this would be throwing away the best possible aid in memorizing; but you will find students who fail to take full advantage of the sense, because, reading along passively, they are not on the alert for general trends and outlines. For fixing in mind the sense of a passage, the essential thing is to see the sense. If the student gets the point with absolute clearness, he has pretty well committed it to memory.



The peculiarities of words or syllables in a list or passage that is being memorized, the relationships observed among the parts, and the meanings suggested or imported into the material, though very useful in the early stages of memorizing, tend to drop out of mind as the material becomes familiar. A pair of syllables, "lub—mer", may have first been associated by turning them into "love mother", but later this meaning fades out, and the two syllables seem simply to belong together in their own right. A pair of words, like "seldom—harbor", that were first linked together by the intermediary thought of a boat that seldom came into the harbor, become directly bound together as mere words. A short-circuiting occurs, indirect attachments giving way to direct. Even the outline and general purpose of a connected passage may fade out of mind, when the passage becomes well learned, so that it may be almost impossible for a schoolboy, who has learned his little speech by heart, to deliver it with any consciousness of its real meaning. A familiar act flattens out and tends to become automatic and mechanical.

Economy in Memorizing

Memorizing is a form of mental work that is susceptible of management, and several principles of scientific management have been worked out that may greatly assist in the learning of a long and difficult lesson. The problem has been approached from the angle of economy or efficiency. Suppose a certain amount of time is allowed for the study of a lesson, how can this time be best utilized?

The first principle of economy has already been sufficiently emphasized: observant study, directed towards the finding of relationships and significant facts, is much more efficient than mere dull repetition.


The value of recitation in memorizing.

"Recitation" here means reciting to oneself. After the learner has read his lesson once or twice, he may, instead of continuing simply to read it, attempt to recite it, prompting himself without much delay when he is stuck, and verifying his recitation by reference to the paper. The question is whether this active reciting method of study is or is not economical of time in memorizing, and whether or not it fixes the lesson durably in memory. The matter has been thoroughly tested, and the answer is unequivocally in favor of recitation. The only outstanding question is as to how soon to start attempting to recite, and probably no single answer can be given to this question, so much depends on the kind of material studied, and on peculiarities of the individual learner. Where the sense rather than the exact wording of a lesson has to be learned, it is probably best to recite, in outline, after the first reading, and to utilize the next reading for filling in the outline.

The results of one series of experiments on this matter are summarized in the adjoining table.


Material studied 16 nonsense syllables 5 short biographies, totalling about 170 words

Per cent, remembered Per cent. remembered

immediately after 4 hours immediately after 4 hours

All time devoted to reading 35 15 35 16

1/5 of time devoted to recitation 50 26 37 19

2/5 of time devoted to recitation 54 28 41 25

3/5 of time devoted to recitation 57 37 42 26

4/5 of time devoted to recitation 74 48 42 26

The time devoted to study was in all cases 9 minutes, and this time was divided between reading and recitation in different proportions as stated in the first column at the left. Reading down the next column, {340} we find that when nonsense syllables were studied and the test was conducted immediately after the close of the study period, 35 per cent. were remembered when all the study time had been devoted to reading, 50 per cent, when the last 1/5 of the study time had been devoted to recitation, 54 per cent when the last 2/5 of the time had been devoted to recitation; and so on. The next column shows the per cents. remembered four hours after the study period. Each subject in these experiments had before him a sheet of paper containing the lesson to be studied, and he simply read it till the experimenter gave a signal to recite, after which the subject recited the lesson to himself as well as he could, prompting himself from the paper as often as necessary, and proceeded, thus till the end of the study period. The subjects in these particular experiments were eighth grade children; adult subjects gave the same general results.

Three facts stand out from the table: (1) Reading down the columns, we see that recitation was always an advantage. (2) The advantage was more marked in the test conducted four hours after study than in the test immediately following the study. To be sure, there is always a falling off from the immediate to the later test; there is bound to be some forgetting when the lesson has been studied for so short a time as here; but the forgetting proceeds more slowly after recitation than after all reading. Recitation fixes the matter more durably. (3) The advantage of recitation is less marked in the meaningful material than in case of nonsense syllables, though it is marked in both cases. The reason is that meaningful material can better be read observantly, time after time, than is possible with nonsense material. Continued reading of nonsense material degenerates into a mere droning, while in repeatedly reading meaningful material the learner who is keenly interested in mastering the passage is sure to keep his mind ahead of his eyes to some extent, so that his reading becomes half recitation, after all.

Whence comes the advantage of recitation? It has a twofold advantage: it is more stimulating, and it is more satisfying. When you know you are going to attempt recitation at once, you are stimulated to observe positions, peculiarities, relationships, and meanings, and thus your study {341} goes on at a higher level than when the test of your knowledge is still far away, with many readings still to come. You are also stimulated to manipulate the material, by way of grouping and rhythm.

On the side of satisfaction, recitation shows you what parts of the lesson you have mastered and gives you the glow of increasing success. It shows you exactly where you are failing and so stimulates to extra attention to those parts of the lesson. It taps the instincts of exploration, manipulation, and mastery much more effectively than continued re-reading of the same lesson can do. The latter becomes very uninteresting, monotonous and fatiguing.

Perhaps, after all, the greatest advantage of reciting is that it makes you do, in learning, the very act that you have later to perform in the test; for what you have finally to do is to recite the lesson without the book. When reading, you are doing something different; and if it were altogether different, it probably would not help you at all towards success in the test. But since intelligent reading consists partly in anticipating and outlining as you go, it is a sort of half recitation, it is halfway doing what you are trying to learn to do. Memorizing consists in performing an act, now, with assistance, that you later wish to perform without assistance; and recitation first stimulates you to fashion the act conformably to the object in view, and then exercises you in performing that act.

Spaced and unspaced repetition.

Another question on the economical management of memorizing: Is it better to keep steadily going through the lesson till you have it, or to go through it at intervals? If you were allowed a certain time, and no more, in which to prepare for examination on a certain memory lesson, how could the study time be best distributed? This question also has received a very definite answer.


Spaced repetitions are more effective than unspaced. In an experiment of Pieron, a practised subject went through a list of twenty numbers with an interval of only thirty seconds between readings, and needed eleven readings to master the list. But a similar list, with five-minute intervals, was mastered in six readings; and the number of readings went down to five with an interval of ten minutes, and remained the same for longer intervals up to two days. With this particular sort of lesson, then, ten minutes was a long enough interval, and two days not too long, to give the greatest economy of time spent in actual study.

In a somewhat different experiment in another laboratory, lists of nonsense syllables were studied either two, four, or eight times in immediate succession, and this was repeated each day till a total of twenty-four readings had been given to each list; then, one day after the last reading of each list, the subjects were tested as to their memory of it. The result appears in the adjoining table.


Distribution of the 24 readings Total score Total score of Mr. B. of Mr. M. 8 readings a day for 3 days 18 7

6 readings a day for 4 days 39 31

2 readings a day for 12 days 58 55

The widest distribution gave the best score. Undoubtedly, then, if you had to memorize a poem or speech, you would get better value for time spent if you read it once or twice at a time, with intervals of perhaps a day, than if you attempted to learn it at one continuous sitting. What exact spacing would give the very greatest economy would depend on the length and character of the lesson.

Spaced study also fixes the matter more durably. Every student knows that continuous "cramming" just before an {343} examination, while it may accomplish its immediate purpose, accomplishes little for permanent knowledge.

When we say that spaced repetitions give best results in memorizing, that does not mean that study generally should be in short periods with intervals of rest; it says nothing one way or the other on that question. The probability is, since most students take a certain time to get well "warmed up" to study, that fairly long periods of consecutive study would yield larger returns than the same amount of time divided into many short periods. What we have been saying here is simply that repetition of the same material fixes it better in memory, when an interval (not necessarily an empty interval) elapses between the repetitions.

Whole versus part learning.

In memorizing a long lesson, is it more economical to divide it into parts, and study each part by itself till mastered, or to keep the lesson entire and always go through the whole thing? Most of us would probably guess that study part by part would be better, but experimental results have usually been in favor of study of the whole.

If you had to memorize 240 lines of a poem, you would certainly be inclined to learn a part at a time; but notice the following experiment. A young man took two passages of this length, both from the same poem, and studied one by the whole method, the other by the part method, in sittings of about thirty-five minutes each day. His results appear in the table.


Method of study Number of days Total number of required minutes required

30 lines memorized per day, then whole reviewed till it could be recited 12 431

3 readings of whole per day till it could be recited 10 348


Here there was an economy of eighty-three minutes, or nearly twenty per cent., by using the whole method as against the part method. Similar experiments have regularly given the same general result.

However, the matter is not quite so simple, as, under certain conditions, the results tend the other way. Let us consider a very different type of learning test. A "pencil maze", consisting of passages or grooves to be traced out with a pencil, while the whole thing was concealed from the subject by a screen, was so arranged that it could be divided into four parts and each part learned separately. Four squads of learners were used. Squads A and B learned the maze as a whole, squads C and D part by part. Squads A and C learned by spaced trials, two trials per day. Squad B learned the whole thing at one sitting; while squad D, which came off best of all, learned one part a day for four days, and on the fifth day learned to put the parts together. The results appear in the adjoining table, which shows the average time required to master the maze by each of the four methods.


Spaced trials Unspaced trials

Whole learning A 641 seconds B 1250 seconds

Part learning C 1220 seconds D 538 seconds

When the trials were spaced, the whole method was much the better; but when the trials were bunched, the part method was much the better; and, on the whole, the unspaced part learning was the best of all. Thus the result stands in apparent contradiction with two accepted laws: that of the advantage of spaced learning, and that of the advantage of whole learning.

This contradiction warns us not to accept the "laws" {345} too blindly, but rather to analyze out the factors of advantage in each method, and govern ourselves accordingly. Among the factors involved are the following four:

(1) The factor of interest, confidence and visible accomplishment—the emotional factor, we might call it. This is on the side of part learning, especially with beginners, who soon feel out of their depth when wading into a long lesson, and lose hope of ever learning it in this way. This factor is also largely on the side of unspaced as against spaced learning, when the part studied is of moderate length and when there are recitations to keep up the interest; for when the learner sees he is getting ahead, he would rather keep right on than wait for another day to finish. To have a task that you can hope to accomplish at once, and to attack it with the intention of mastering it at once, is very stimulating.

(2) The factor of recency, of "striking while the iron is hot". When an act has just been successfully performed it can easily be repeated, and when a fact has just been observed it can readily be put to use. This factor is clearly on the side of unspaced learning; and it is also on the side of part learning, since by the time you have gone through the whole long lesson and got back to where you are now, the recency value of what you have just now accomplished will have evaporated.

(3) The factor of meaning, outlining and broad relationships. This is on the side of whole learning, for it is when you are going through the whole that you catch its general drift, and see the connections of the several parts and their places in the whole. This factor is so important as to outweigh the preceding two in many cases, especially with experienced learners dealing with meaningful material. Even if you should prefer the part method, you would be wise to begin by a careful survey of the whole.


(4) The factor of permanency. This is something "physiological", and it is on the side of spaced learning. The muscles profit more by exercise with intervals of rest than by a large amount of continuous exercise, and no athlete would think for a moment of training for a contest of strength by "cramming" for it. Apparently the neurones obey the same law as the muscles, and for that reason spaced learning gives more durable results than unspaced.

Unintentional Learning

What we have been examining is intentional memorizing, with the "will to learn" strongly in the game. The assertion has sometimes been made that the will to learn is necessary if any learning is to be accomplished. We must look into this matter, for it has an important bearing on the whole question of the process of learning.

There is a famous incident that occurred in a Swiss psychological laboratory, when a foreign student was supposed to be memorizing a list of nonsense syllables. After the list had been passed before him many times without his giving the expected signal that he was ready to recite, the experimenter remarked that he seemed to be having trouble in memorizing the syllables. "Oh! I didn't understand that I was to learn them", he said, and it was found that, in fact, he had made almost no progress towards learning the list. He had been observing the separate syllables, with no effort to connect them into a series.

Another incident: subjects were put repeatedly through a "color naming test", which consisted of five colors repeated in irregular order, the object being to name the one hundred bits of color as rapidly as possible. After the subjects had been through this test over two hundred times, you would think they could recite it from memory; but not {347} at all! They had very little memory of the order of the bits of color. Their efforts had been wholly concentrated upon naming the bits as seen, and not in connecting them into a series that could be remembered.

The experiment described a few pages back on "paired associates" is another case in point. The subjects memorized the pairs, but made no effort to connect the pairs in order, and consequently were not able later to remember the order of the pairs.

Many somewhat similar experiments have been performed, with the object of measuring the reliability of the testimony of eye-witnesses; and it has been found that testimony is very unreliable except for facts that were specifically noted at the time. Enact a little scene before a class of students who do not suspect that their memory of the affair is later to be tested, and you will find that their memory for many facts that were before their eyes is hazy, absent, or positively false.

These facts all emphasize the importance of the will to learn. But let us consider another line of facts. An event occurs before our eyes, and we do notice certain facts about it, not with any intention of remembering them later, but simply because they arouse our interest; later, we recall such facts with great clearness and certainty. Or, we hear a tune time after time, and gradually come to be able to sing it ourselves, without ever having attempted to memorize it. Practically all that the child learns in the first few years of his life, he learns without any "will to learn".

What is the difference between the case where the will to learn is necessary, and the case where it is unnecessary? The difference is that in the one case we observe facts for the purpose of committing them to memory, and in the other case we observe the facts without any such intention. In both cases we remember what we have definitely observed, {348} and fail to remember what we have not observed. Sometimes, to be sure, it is not so much observation as doing that is operative. We may make a certain reaction with the object of learning it so as to make it later, or we may make the reaction for some other reason; but in either case we learn it.

What is essential, then, is not the will to learn, but the doing and observing. The will to learn is sometimes important, as a directive tendency, to steer doing and observing into channels relevant to the particular memory task that we need to perform. But committing to memory seems not to be any special form of activity; rather, it consists of reactions that also occur without any view to future remembering. Not only do we learn by doing and observing, but doing and observing are learning.


We come now to the second of our four main problems, and ask how we retain, or carry around inside of us, what we have learned. The answer is, not by any process or activity. Retention is a resting state, in which a learned reaction remains until the stimulus arrives that can arouse it again. We carry around with us, not the reaction, but the machinery for making the reaction.

Consider, for example, the retention of motor skill. A boy who has learned to turn a handspring does not have to keep doing it all the time in order to retain it. He may keep himself in better form by reviewing the performance occasionally, but he retains the skill even while eating and sleeping. The same can be said of the retention of the multiplication table, or of a poem, or of knowledge of any kind. The machinery that is retained consists very largely in brain connections. Connections formed in the process of {349} learning remain behind in a resting condition till again aroused to activity by some appropriate stimulus.

But the machinery developed in the process of learning is subject to the wasting effects of time. It is subject to the law of "atrophy through disuse". Just as a muscle, brought by exercise into the pink of condition, and then left long inactive, grows weak and small, so it is with the brain connections formed in learning. With prolongation of the condition of rest, the machinery is less and less able to function, till finally all retention of a once-learned reaction may be lost.

But is anything once learned ever completely forgotten and lost? Some say no, being strongly impressed by cases of recovery of memories that were thought to be altogether gone. Childhood experiences that were supposed to be completely forgotten, and that could not at first be recalled at all, have sometimes been recovered after a long and devious search. Sometimes a hypnotized person remembers facts that he could not get at in the waking state. Persons in a fever have been known to speak a language heard in childhood, but so long disused as to be completely inaccessible in the normal state. Such facts have been generalized into the extravagant statement that nothing once known is ever forgotten. For it is an extravagant statement. It would mean that all the lessons you had ever learned could still be recited, if only the right stimulus could be found to arouse them; it would mean that all the lectures you ever heard (and attended to) are still retained, that all the stories you ever read are still retained, that all the faces you ever noticed are still retained, that all the scenes and happenings that ever got your attention could still be revived if only the right means were taken to revive them. There is no evidence for any such extreme view.

The modern, scientific study of this matter began with {350} recognizing the fact that there are degrees of retention, ranging all the way from one hundred per cent, to zero, and with the invention of methods of measuring retention. Suppose you have memorized a list of twenty numbers some time ago, and kept a record of the time you then took to learn it; since when you have not thought of it again.

On attempting now to recite it, you make no headway and are inclined to think you have entirely forgotten it. But, finding the list again, you relearn it, and probably find that your time for relearning is less than the original learning time—unless the lapse of time has run into months. Now consider—if no time at all were needed for relearning, because the list could be recited easily without, your retention would be one hundred per cent. If, on the contrary, it took you just as long now to relearn as it did originally to learn, the retention would be zero. If it takes you now two-thirds as long to relearn as it originally took to learn, then {351} one-third of the work originally done on the list does not have to be done over, and this saving is the measure of retention.

By the use of this method, the curve of retention, or curve of forgetting, as it is also called, has been determined. It is a curve that first goes down steeply, and then more and more gradually, till it approximates to zero; which means that the loss of what has been learned proceeds rapidly at first and then more and more slowly.

The curve of forgetting can be determined by other methods besides the saving method—by the recall method or by the recognition method; and data obtained by these methods are given in the adjoining tables. It will be seen that the different methods agree in showing a curve that falls off more rapidly at first than later. More is lost in the first hour than in the second hour, and more in the first week than in the second week. Few of the experiments have been continued long enough to bring the curve actually to the zero line, but it has come very close to that line in tests conducted after an interval of two to four months.


Interval between Per cent. recognized with exposure and test certainty and correctness

15 secs. 84

5 min. 73

15 min. 62

30 min. 58

1 hour 56

2 hours 50

4 hours 47

8 hours 40

12 hours 38

1 day 29

2 days 24

4 days 19

7 days 10

The subject read a list of 20 disconnected words once through, giving careful attention to each word. Immediately at the close of the reading he performed an example in mental arithmetic, to prevent his reviewing the list of words mentally. After an interval, he was shown these {352} twenty words mixed with twenty others, and had to pick out those he surely recognized as having been shown before. Many lists were used, for testing after the different intervals. Five adult subjects took part in the experiment, and in all 15 lists were used with each interval; the per cents. given in the table are the averages for the 15 lists.


Time of test Per cent, of error Per cent of error in spontaneous in answering recall questions regarding the picture

Immediately after exposure 10 14

After 5 days 14 18

After 15 days 18 20

After 46 days 22 22

The picture was placed in the subject's hands, and he examined it for one minute, at the end of which time he wrote down as complete a description of the picture as possible, and then answered a set of sixty questions covering all the features of the picture. After five days he was retested in the same way, and again after fifteen days, etc. In one respect this is not a typical memory experiment, since the test after five days would revive the subject's memory of the picture and slacken the progress of forgetting. The experiment corresponds more closely to the conditions of ordinary life, when we do recall a scene at intervals; or it corresponds to the conditions surrounding the eye-witness of a crime, who must testify regarding it, time after time, before police, lawyers and juries. However, the subjects in this experiment realized at the time that they were to be examined later, and studied the picture more carefully than the eye-witness of a crime would study the event occurring before his eyes; so that the per cent. of error was smaller here than can be expected in the courtroom.

It must be understood that this classical curve of forgetting only holds good, strictly, for material that has barely been learned. Reactions that have been drilled in thoroughly and repeatedly fall off very slowly at first, and the further course of the curve of forgetting has not been accurately followed in their case. A typist who had spent perhaps two hundred hours in drill, and then dropped typewriting for a year, recovered the lost ground in less than an hour of fresh practice, so that the retention, as measured by the saving method, was over ninety-nine per cent.

Somewhat different from the matter of the curve of forgetting is the question of the rate of forgetting, as {353} dependent on various conditions. The rate of forgetting depends, first, on the thoroughness of the learning, as we have just seen. It depends on the kind of material learned, being very much slower for meaningful than for nonsense material, though both have been learned equally well. Barely learned nonsense material is almost entirely gone by the end of four months, but stanzas of poetry, just barely learned, have shown a perceptible retention after twenty years.

Very fortunately, the principles of economy of memorizing hold good also for retention. Forgetting is slower when relationships and connections have been found in the material than when the learning has been by rote. Forgetting is slower after active recitation than when the more passive, receptive method of study has been employed. Forgetting is slower after spaced than after unspaced study, and slower after whole learning than after part learning.

An old saying has it that quick learning means quick forgetting, and that quick learners are quick forgetters. Experiment does not wholly bear this out. A lesson that is learned quickly because it is clearly understood is better retained than one which is imperfectly understood and therefore slowly learned; and a learner who learns quickly because he is on the alert for significant facts and connections retains better than a learner who is slow from lack of such alertness. The wider awake the learner, the quicker will be his learning and the slower his subsequent forgetting; so that one is often tempted to admonish a certain type of studious but easy-going person, "for goodness' sake not to dawdle over his lessons", with any idea that the more time he spends with them the longer he will remember them. More gas! High pressure gives the biggest results, provided only it is directed into high-level observation, and does not simply generate fear and worry and a rattle-brained frenzy of rote learning.



Having committed something to memory, how do we get it back when we want it? To judge from such simple cases as the animal's performance of a previously learned reaction, all that is necessary is a stimulus previously linked with the response. How, for example, shall we get the cat to turn the door-button, this being an act that the cat has previously learned? Why, we put the cat into the same cage, i.e., we supply the stimulus that has previously given the reaction, and trust to it to give the same reaction again. The learning process has attached this reaction to this stimulus. Now can we say the same regarding material committed to memory by the human subject? Is recall a species of learned reaction that needs only the linked stimulus to arouse it?

If you have learned and still retain a list of numbers or syllables, you can recite it on thinking of it, on hearing words that identify it in your mind, or on being given the first few items in the list as a start. The act of reciting the list became linked, during the learning, with the thought of the list, with words signifying this particular list, and with the first items of the list; therefore, these stimuli can now arouse the reaction of reciting the list. As you advance into the list, reciting it, the parts already recited act as stimuli to keep you going forward. In the same way, if you have memorized Hamlet's soliloquy, this title serves as the stimulus to make you recall the beginning of the speech and that in turn calls up the next part and so on; or, if you have analyzed the speech into an outline, the title calls up the outline and the outline acts as the stimulus to call up the several parts that were attached to the outline in the process of memorization. When one idea calls up another, the first acts as a stimulus and the second is a {355} response previously attached to this stimulus. In general, then, recall is a learned response to a stimulus.

There is an exceptional case, where recall seems to occur without any stimulus. This form of recall goes by the name of perseveration, and a good instance of it is the "running of a tune in the head", shortly after it has been heard. Another instance is the vivid flashing of scenes of the day before the "mind's eye" as one lies in bed before going to sleep. It appears as if the sights or sounds came up of themselves and without any stimulus. Possibly there is some vague stimulus which cannot itself be detected. Only a slight stimulus would be needed, because these recent and vivid experiences are so easily aroused.

Difficulties in recall.

Sometimes recall fails to materialize when we wish it and have good reason for expecting it. We know this person's name, as is proved by the fact that we later recall it, but at the moment we cannot bring it up. We know the answer to this examination question, but in the heat of the examination we give the wrong answer, though afterwards the right answer comes to mind. This seldom happens with thoroughly learned facts, but frequently with facts that are moderately well known. Some sort of inhibition or interference blocks recall.

One type of interference is emotional. Fear may paralyze recall. Anxious self-consciousness, or stage fright, has prevented the recall of many a well-learned speech, and interfered with the skilful performance of many a well-trained act.

Distraction is an interference, since it keeps the stimulus from exerting its full effect. Sometimes the stimulus that is present has been linked with two or more responses, and these get in each other's way; as you will sometimes hear a speaker hesitate and become confused from having two ways {356} of expressing the same thought occur to him at almost the same instant.

Helps in recall.

There are no sure rules for avoiding these intricate interferences; and, in general, recall being a much less manageable process than memorizing, we do not have anything like the same mass of practical information regarding it. One or two suggestions have some value, however.

(1) Give the stimulus a good chance. Look squarely at the person whose name you wish to recall, avoiding doubt as to your ability to recall it; for doubt is itself a distraction. Put yourself back into the time when you formerly used this person's name. In extemporaneous speaking, go ahead confidently, avoid worry and self-consciousness, and, full of your subject, trust to your ideas to recall the words as needed. Once carried away with his subject, a speaker may surprise himself by his own fluency.

(2) Drop the matter for a while, and come back to it afresh. Sometimes, when you cannot at once recall a name, it does no good to keep doggedly hunting, while half an hour later you get it without the least trouble. The explanation of this curious phenomenon is found in interference and the dying out of interference. At your first attempt to recall the name, you simply got on the wrong track, and thus gave this wrong track the "recency" advantage over the right track; but this temporary advantage fades out rapidly with rest and leaves the advantage with the track most used in the past.

The rule to drop a matter when baffled and confused, and take it up again when fresh, can be used in more complex cases than hunting for a name. When, in trying to solve any sort of problem, you find yourself in a rut, about the only escape is to back off, rest up, and make an entirely fresh start.



The fourth question propounded at the beginning of the chapter, as to how we can know that the fact now recalled is what we formerly committed to memory and now wish to recall, is part of the larger question of how we recognize. What we recognize includes not only facts recalled, but also facts not recalled but presented a second time to the senses. Recognition of objects seen, heard, touched, etc., is the most rudimentary form of memory. The baby shows signs of recognizing persons and things before he shows signs of recall. A little later, he recognizes and understands words before he begins to speak (recall) them; and everybody's vocabulary of recognized words remains much greater than his speaking vocabulary. We recognize faces that we could not recall, and names that we could not recall. In short, recognition is easier than recall.

Consequently any theory of recognition that makes it depend on recall can scarcely be correct. One such theory held that an object is recognized by recalling its original setting in past experience; an odor would be recognized by virtue of recalling the circumstances under which it was formerly experienced. Now sometimes it does happen that an odor which seems familiar, but cannot be identified, calls up a past experience and thus is fully recognized; but such "indirect recognition" is not the usual thing, for direct recognition commonly takes place before recall of the past experience has time to occur. You see a person, and know him at once, though it may require some moments before you can recall where and when you have seen him before.

Recognition may be more or less complete. At its minimum, it is simply a "feeling of familiarity" with the object; at its maximum it is locating the object precisely in your autobiography. You see a man, and say, "He looks {358} familiar, I must have seen him somewhere", and then it dawns on you, "Oh! yes, now I know exactly who he is; he is the man who . . ." Between these extremes lie various degrees of recognition. This man seems to be some one seen recently, or a long, long time ago, or at the seashore, or as a salesman in a store; or as some one you looked up to, or felt hostility towards, or were amused at; and often these impressions turn out to be correct, when you succeed in fully recognizing the person. These impressions resemble the first signs of recognition in the baby's behavior; you say that the baby remembers people because he smiles at one who has pleased him before, and shrinks from one who has displeased him.

Recognition described in terms of stimulus and response.

Recognition is a form of learned response, depending on previous reaction to the object recognized. To recognize an object is to respond to it as we responded before—except for the feeling of familiarity, which could not occur the first time we saw the object. But notice this: though the object is the same identical object it was before, it may have changed somewhat. At least, its setting is different; this is a different time and perhaps a different place, and the circumstances are bound to be more or less different. In spite of this difference in the situation, we make the same response as before.

Now, the response we made to the object in its original setting was a response to the whole situation, object plus setting; our response to the object was colored by its setting. When we now recognize the object, we make the same response to the object in a different setting; the response originally called out by the object plus its setting is now aroused by the object alone. Consequently we have an uneasy feeling of responding to a situation that is not present. {359} This uneasy feeling is the feeling of familiarity in its more haunting and "intriguing" form.

We see some one who seems familiar and who arouses a hostile attitude in us that is not accounted for in the least by his present actions. We have this uneasy feeling of responding to a situation that is not present, and cannot rest till we have identified the person and justified our hostile attitude.

Or, we see some one who makes us feel as if we had had dealings with him before in a store or postoffice where he must have served us; we find ourselves taking the attitude towards him that is appropriate towards such a functionary, though there is nothing in his present setting to arouse such an attitude. Or, we see some one in the city streets who seems to put us back into the atmosphere of a vacation at the seashore, and by searching our memory we finally locate him as an individual we saw at such and such a resort. At other times, the feeling of familiarity is rather colorless, because the original situation in which the person was encountered was colorless; but we still have the feeling of responding to something that is not present. We make, or start to make, the same response to the person that we originally made to him plus his setting, and this response to something that is not there gives the feeling of familiarity.

When we see the same person time after time in the same setting, as when we go into the same store every morning and buy a paper from the same man, we cease to have any strong feeling of familiarity at sight of him, the reason being that we are always responding to him in the same setting, and consequently have no feeling of responding to something that is not there. But if we see this same individual in a totally different place, he may give us a queer feeling of familiarity. When we see the same person time after time {360} in various settings, we end by separating him from his surroundings and responding to him alone, and therefore the familiarity feeling disappears.

Complete recognition, or "placing" the object, involves something more than these feelings and rudimentary reactions. It involves the recall of a context or scheme of events, and a fitting of the object into the scheme.

Memory Training

The important question whether memory can be improved by any form of training breaks up, in the light of our previous analysis, into the four questions, whether memorizing can be improved, whether the power of retention can be improved, whether recall can be improved, and whether recognition can be improved. As to recognition, it is difficult to imagine how to train it; the process is so elusive and so direct. It has been found, however, that practice in recognizing a certain class of objects improves one's standards of judgment as to whether a feeling of familiarity is reliable or not; it enables one to distinguish between feelings that have given correct recognitions and the vaguer feelings that often lead one astray.

As to recall, certain hints were given above as to the efficient management of this process, and probably practice in recalling a certain sort of facts, checked up by results, would lead to improvement.

As to retention, since this is not a performance but a resting state, how could we possibly go about to effect an improvement? One individual's brain is, to be sure, more retentive than another's; but that seems a native trait, not to be altered by training.

On the other hand, the process of committing to memory, being a straightforward and controllable activity, is {361} exceedingly susceptible to training, and it is there, for the most part, that memory training should be concentrated in order to yield results. It does yield marked results. In the laboratory, the beginner in learning lists of nonsense syllables makes poor work of it. He is emotionally wrought up and uncertain of himself, goes to work in a random way (like any beginner), perhaps tries to learn by pure rote or else attempts to use devices that are ill-adapted to the material, and has a slow and tedious job of it. With practice in learning this sort of material, he learns to observe suitable groupings and relationships, becomes sure of himself and free from the distraction of emotional disturbance, and may even come to enjoy the work. Certainly he improves greatly in speed of memorizing nonsense syllables. If, instead, he practises on Spenser's "Faery Queen", he improves in that, and may cut down his time for memorizing a twelve-line stanza from fifteen minutes to five. This improvement is due to the subject's finding out ways of tackling this particular sort of material. He gets used to Spenser's style and range of ideas. And so it is with any kind of material; practice in memorizing it brings great improvement in memorizing that particular material.

Whether practice with one sort of material brings skill that can be "transferred", or carried over to a second kind of material, is quite another question. Usually the amount of transfer is small compared with the improvement gained in handling the first material, or compared with the improvement that will result from specific training with the second kind. What skill is transferred consists partly of the habit of looking for groupings and relationships, and partly in the confidence in one's own ability as a memorizer. It is really worth while taking part in a memory experiment, just to know what you can accomplish after a little training. Most persons who complain of poor memory would be {362} convinced by such an experiment that their memory was fundamentally sound. But these laboratory exercises do not pretend to develop any general "power of memory", and the much advertised systems of memory training are no more justified in such a claim. What is developed, in both cases, is skill in memorizing certain kinds of material so as to pass certain forms of memory test.

One who suffers from poor memory for any special material, as names, errands, or engagements, probably is not going to work right in committing the facts to memory; and if he gives special attention to this particular matter, keeping tab on himself to see whether he improves, he is likely to find better ways of fixing the facts and to make great improvement. It was said of a certain college president of the older day that he never failed to call a student or alumnus by name, after he had once met the man. How did he do it? He had the custom of calling each man in the freshman class into his office for a private interview, during which, besides fatherly advice, he asked the man personal questions and studied him intently. He was interested in the man, he formed a clear impression of his personality, and to that personality he carefully attached the name. Undoubtedly this able scholar was possessed of an unusually retentive memory; but his memory for names depended largely on his method of committing them to memory.

Contrast this with the casual procedure of most of us on being introduced to a person. Perhaps we scarcely notice the name, and make no effort to attach the name to the personality. To have a good memory for names, one needs to give attention and practice to this specific matter. It is the same with memory for errands; it can be specifically trained. Perhaps the best general hint here is to connect the errand beforehand in your mind with the {363} place where you should think, during the day, to do the errand.

Often some little mnemonic system will help in remembering disconnected facts, but such devices have only a limited field of application and do not in the least improve the general power of memory. Some speakers, in planning out a speech, locate each successive "point" in a corner of the hall, or in a room of their own house; and when they have finished one point, look into the next corner, or think of the next room, and find the following point there. It would seem that a well-ordered discourse should supply its own logical cues so that such artificial aids would be unnecessary.

In training the memory for the significant facts that constitute the individual's knowledge of his business in life, the best rule is to systematize and interrelate the facts into a coherent whole. Thus, a bigger and stronger stimulus is provided for the recall of any item. This, along with the principles of "economy" in memorizing, is the best suggestion that psychology has to make towards memory improvement.



1. In outlining the chapter, regroup the material so as to separate the practical applications from the description of memory processes. This gives you two main heads: A. Memory processes, and B. The training and management of memory. Each of these main heads should be divided into four sub-heads: Memorizing, retention, etc., and the information contained in the chapter grouped under these sub-heads.

2. Disorders of memory can be classified under the four heads of disorders of learning, of retention, of recall and of recognition. Where would you place each of the following?

(a) Aphasia, where, through brain injury, the subject's vocabulary is very much reduced.

(b) The condition of the very old person, who cannot remember what has happened during the day, though he still remembers experiences of his youth.

(c) The "feeling of having been there before", in which you have a weird impression that what is happening now has happened in just the same way before, as if events were simply repeating themselves.

(d) The loss of memory which sometimes occurs after a physical or emotional shock, or after a fever, and which passes away after a time.

3. How fully can you recall what happened on some interesting occasion when you were a child of 5-8 years? Dwell on the experience, and see whether you get back more than at first seemed possible. Try the same with an experience of five years ago.

4. If a student came to you for advice, complaining of poor memory, and said that though he put hours and hours on a lesson and read it over many times, still he failed on it, what questions would you ask regarding his method of study, and what suggestions would you offer?

5. An experiment on memorising lists of numbers. Prepare several lists of 20 digits, and shuffle them; draw out one and take your time for learning it to the point of perfect recitation. Write an introspective account of the process. Repeat with a second list

6. An experiment in memorizing word-pairs. Prepare 20 pairs of words as follows: take 20 cards or slips of paper, and write a different word on each. Then turn them over, shuffle, and write another word on the back of each. Thus, though you may know what words you have written, you do not how how they are paired; and now your job is to learn the pairs. Note starting time, take the first card and look at both {365} sides, and study the pair of words on this card for about 5 seconds, passing then to the second card, and so on through the pack. Shuffle the pack, take the top card and give yourself about 5 seconds to recall the word on the reverse, then turning the card over and reading it. Proceed in this way through the pack, shuffle again, and repeat. Continue thus till you score 100 per cent. Note total time required, and report on process of memorizing.

7. Memorizing a series of related words. Prepare a list of 40 words, as follows: first write the numbers 1 to 40 in a column; then write any word for No. 1; for No. 2, write some word closely related to No. 1; for No. 3 some word closely related to No. 2; and so on. Your list, for example, might begin like this: house, roof, chimney, soot, fire, coal, mine, miner, strike, arbitration, etc. Having finished writing your list, cover it and see how much of it you can recite without further study, and how long it takes you to complete the memorizing. Explain the results obtained.

8. Plot the curve of forgetting from the following data, which give the per cent, of retention of stanzas of a poem at different intervals after the end of memorizing.

after 1 day 79% after 2 days 67% after 6 days 42% after 14 days 30% after 30 days 24%


Ebbinghaus, On Memory, 1885, translated by Ruger and Bussenius, 1918. This is the pioneer experimental study of memory, and is still worth reading, and is not specially hard reading.

James's chapter on Memory, in Vol. I of his Principles of Psychology, 1890, is still one of the best references, and contains some important remarks on the improvement of memory.

Of the numerous special studies on memory, mention may be made of that by Arthur I. Gates, Recitation as a Factor in Memorizing, 1917, which, on pp. 65-104, gives a valuable account of the various devices used by one who is memorizing.

For the psychology of testimony, see G. M. Whipple's article on "The Obtaining of Information: Psychology of Observation and Report", in the Psychological Bulletin for 1918, Vol. 15, pp. 217-248, especially pp. 233-248. See also a popularly written account of the matter by Muensterberg, in On the Witness Stand, 1908, pp. 15-69.





Memory plays a part, not only in "memory work", and not only in remembering particular past experiences, but in all sorts of thinking. Recall furnishes the raw material for thought. A large share of any one's daily work, whether it be manual or mental, depends on the recall of previously learned reactions. Most of the time, though we are not exactly trying to remember facts committed to memory, we are recalling what we have previously learned, and utilizing the recalled material for our present purposes. For example, in conversation we recall words to express our meaning, and we recall the meanings of the words we hear. In adding a column of figures, we recall the sums of the numbers. In cooking a meal, we recall the ingredients of the dish we wish to prepare, and the location of the various materials and utensils required for our purpose. In planning a trip, we recall places and routes. Any sort of problem is solved by means of recalled facts put together in a new way. A writer in constructing a story puts together facts that he has previously noted, and any work of the imagination consists of materials recalled from past experience and now built into a new composition.

What Can Be Recalled

If recall is so important in thinking and acting, it is worth while to make a survey of the materials that recall {367} furnishes. In general, using the term "recall" rather broadly, we say that any previously learned reaction may be recalled. Writing movements may be said to be recalled when we write, and speech movements when we speak. "Higher units", like the word habits and phrase habits of the telegrapher and typist, are in a broad sense recalled whenever they are used. The typist does not by any means recall the experience of learning a higher unit, but he calls into action again the response that he has learned to make. In the same way, the word habits and phrase habits of vocal speech are called into action, i.e., recalled, whenever we speak.

Besides these motor reactions, tendencies to reaction can be recalled. The attitude of hostility that may have become habitual in us towards a certain person, or towards a certain task, is called into activity at the mention of that person or task. The acquired interest in architecture that we may have formed by reading or travel is revived by the sight of an ambitious group of buildings. A slumbering purpose may be recalled into activity by some relevant stimulus.

Observed facts can be recalled, and this is the typically human form of recall. In animals, we see the recall of tendencies and of learned movements, but no clear evidence of the recall of observed facts. To be recalled with certainty, a fact must have been definitely noted when it was before us. If we have definitely noted the color of a person's eyes, we are in a position to testify that his eyes are brown, for example; otherwise, we may say that we think probably his eyes are brown; because we have certainly noticed that he is dark, and the dark eyes fit best into this total impression.

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