Endel Tulving


World authority on human memory function

"Don’t listen to authorities. Find out what the problem is, get the facts, and make up your own mind. Use the scientific method to work things out. The scientific method can solve many problems. Experiment. Trust your feelings and try out various things."

It is 1963. Endel Tulving is standing at the blackboard before a fourth-year cognitive-psychology class at the University of Toronto. He’s teaching eight students. The classroom is on the fourth floor of the new Sidney Smith Building in a long, unfriendly classroom with no windows. There’s a smell of fresh paint. The blackboard stretches the length of one wall. Everyone is sitting around a big table. Tulving is telling students that memory consists of two important parts, that laying down memories and retrieving them are separate functions.

“Just because a person cannot recall a word seen only a minute ago does not mean that the word is not in memory,” he says.

A student asks, “Do you have any evidence for this?”

Tulving says, “But this should be self-evident.”

Nevertheless, he notes the doubtful expression on the student’s face.

They break for coffee and Tulving goes to his office around the corner. Deep in thought and troubled by the situation in the classroom, he thinks he has time to prepare a simple experiment to demonstrate his point to the students. When he returns to class, he tells everyone to concentrate and listen carefully while he calls out 20 familiar but unrelated words: “Yellow,” “rifle,” “desk,” “violin” and so on. When he is finished, he asks the students to write down as many words as they can remember. Most can get about eight or 10. When they have completed their lists, he picks up the skeptical student’s paper and notices that she did not remember the word “yellow.” He says, “Wasn’t there a colour on the list?” Instantly the student says, “Yellow!” Tulving repeats this for the other missed words, with the same result. Finally, the student who thought that once something was in memory it could always be recalled reluctantly admits, “Perhaps you have a point.”

Tulving explains to the class, “You see my point: for someone to know something it is, of course, necessary to have that knowledge in memory, but that presence in memory alone is not enough. Something else is needed, something that makes the stored knowledge accessible.”

Everyone has experienced the frustration during a test of knowing the answer to a question but not being able to produce it, no matter how hard one tries. The knowledge is not missing. What is lacking is an access route to the information.

As a young scientist ...

Tulving grew up in the town of Tartu in Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe. Tartu was famous for its old university, built in 1632. The townspeople knew all the professors, and everyone from the university, including students, was treated with great respect. Tulving was the son of a judge and as a child he went to a private boy’s school called Hugo Treffner’s Gümnasium. He was a good student, always first in his class, but he was not very interested in school. He thought subjects like history, literature and science were totally boring.

Instead, Tulving loved all kinds of sports — skating, skiing, basketball, volleyball, and most of all, track and field. He dreamed of becoming a decathlon champion and he built a primitive but usable track at the family farm where he spent his summers. His friends were fascinated by crystal radios, which were the great new invention of the day, but Tulving was not interested. He was concentrating on running 100 metres in under 12 seconds or throwing the discus farther than he had ever done before.

As a teenager Tulving was not interested in becoming a scientist. Subjects such as physics, chemistry, zoology and botany were dull to him because he had the impression that everything in these fields was already known. But he would wonder, When did time begin? What was there before time? Where does the universe end? What is beyond the end? Is extrasensory perception (ESP) possible? To him, these were the big unanswered questions and therefore worthwhile.

When Tulving was 17, World War II was coming to an end and the Soviet Union’s Red Army entered Estonia. Because of this he was separated from his parents and had to leave Estonia for Germany, where he finished school. Tulving would not see his parents again for 20 years. In his last year of school in Germany he studied psychology and liked it right away because of the many mysteries surrounding the brain and behaviour. He decided to become a psychologist.

After graduation, he taught in a German school for war orphans, worked as a translator and interpreter for the American army and spent one year as a medical student at Heidelberg University.

Tulving came to Canada in 1949, married his wife in 1950 and worked toward a master of arts (MA) degree at the University of Toronto, studying psychology. He then went to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he researched human vision for his doctorate in experimental psychology.

In 1956 he returned to the University of Toronto as a lecturer. He wanted to continue his vision research, but the university had no equipment or experimental apparatus for that kind of work. He had never taken a single course on memory in all his years at university, but he decided to try memory research since it required no fancy equipment. He started with nothing more than a pencil and a stack of index cards, picking up the necessary background information by reading.

Read Endel Tulving's answers to questions...The Science