Human Memory Systems: Part 1 of 5

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As we have seen, it is possible to describe external memory systems in terms of such properties as their capacity, codes, speed of encoding and retrieval, susceptibility to interference, and so on. Even though the human memory system is an internal one, it can be described in similar terms.

We can often infer quite a bit about a memory system from the way it functions or behaves. In the next artilce we will examine some of the ways in which human memory has been studied. Careful observation of how humans perform various memory tasks has suggested a variety of theoretical conjectures about the nature of human memory. Many of these theoretical approaches involve analogies between human memory and external memory systems, in particular computers.

Memory Tasks: Assessing Human Memory

The first systematic experiments on human memory were conducted around 1876 by a German named Hermann Ebbinghaus (Ebbinhaus, 1885). He developed a number of simple memory tasks and carefully observed how people performed them. Similar tasks have since been employed in hundreds of memory experiments. We will look briefly at three different types of tasks: recall, recognition, and relearning.


One of the simplest ways to test human memory is to allow subjects to study a list of words, and then to ask them to recall as many as possible either by naming them or by writing them down. Take a minute to study the list of words. Now cover the list and write out as many of the items as you can remember. The color curve in shows the relationship between the length of time subjects study lists of this sort and the number of items they can successfully recall during a one-minute period. Not surprisingly, the longer they study, the more study time is required for them to recall one additional word (a “diminishing return”). Another feature of recall tasks is indicated by the white curve.

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