Endel Tulving Psychology

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."

The Story

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.

The Science

Cognitive psychologists study the human mind. “Cognitive” comes from the Latin verb cognoscere, to know, so cognitive psychologists study how people know things — how we see, hear, acquire information, remember, believe, understand, speak, think, solve problems, make decisions and much more. As a memory researcher, Tulving explores how people learn and know facts, and how they remember their experiences. Knowing and remembering are very important facets of mind, and for Tulving the human mind is by far the biggest and most complex unsolved mystery in the universe.

Sometimes people wonder what a “mind” is. Tulving believes only a life can have a mind. To him a rock cannot have a mind. But does a virus or a blade of grass have a mind? He defines the occurrence of mind in living organisms as a point in evolution when a living thing does something without expressing any overt behaviour. For instance, when you are remembering something, you are doing something, but your body is not outwardly doing anything. Tulving points out that different species have different minds. A bee can remember the location of a flower by using its bee mind. A human remembers a flower’s location in a different way, with a different type of mind.

In the early 1960s, guided by others who had gone before him, Tulving devised experiments to study the way people learn words and organize them in their own minds — so-called subjective organization.

Tulving wondered why subjective organization helps people learn and retain verbal information. He assumed that organized information in memory is more readily accessible than unorganized information; that better “access routes” to it must exist. He made a distinction between two kinds of learned information in memory, one that is “available” and another, more organized form, that is “accessible,” if not immediately available. In 1966 Tulving and his research assistant, Zena Pearlstone, published the results of a large experiment involving more than 900 high school students. It was based on the 1963 classroom demonstration described above. The experiment showed how storage of information could be distinguished from retrieval of information and how studies could isolate and capture the two components. This paved the way for further work that culminated in one of Tulving’s best-known discoveries: the “encoding specificity principle,” the relation between storage and retrieval necessary for the remembering of an event.

Tulving is best known for his concept of episodic memory. Again guided by earlier work of others, in 1972 he proposed a basic distinction between two kinds of memory. He called one episodic and the other semantic memory. At the time, psychologists believed there was only one kind of long-term memory, so Tulving’s idea of two separate memory systems was not accepted at first. According to Tulving, episodic memory is used to recall events we have personally experienced or witnessed, while semantic memory taps into mental stores of general facts and knowledge. Thus, episodic memory is more about remembering, and semantic memory is more about knowing.

According to Tulving’s theory, we use semantic memory to know that the Eiffel Tower is a famous landmark in Paris, and that Paris is the capital of France, but we use episodic memory to remember a trip we took to Paris to visit the Eiffel Tower and any events that occurred there. Other psychologists do not agree. They maintain that knowing about the Eiffel Tower being in Paris and remembering one’s trip to Paris rely on one and the same kind of memory. The only difference, they say, is the information the memory contains.

Tulving also believes that animals do not have episodic memory, not even higher primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. To him, they have only semantic memory. They always live for the moment, lacking the human ability to travel back and forth in time in their mind. That is, they cannot remember what they did yesterday or imagine what they will do tomorrow. This capacity for mental time travel seems to be unique to humans. Animals do not have this capacity, nor do some people who have suffered a certain type of brain damage.

Psychologists have done experiments on brain-damaged people with no episodic memory and have found that some can learn new facts, if rather slowly. However, such people cannot recall how, when or where they learned these facts. They have no memory of taking the lessons. One fellow for many weeks went to Tulving’s clinic, where he was taught certain facts and phrases such as, “Sun’s rays soften asphalt.” At the end of the course he was given a test and he did quite well. When asked what the rays softened, he would say “asphalt.” But when he was asked to describe how he learned these things he had no recollection of the lessons and had no idea how he knew all the material.

Tulving extends his theory to children less than four years old. They learn quickly using their semantic memory abilities, but they cannot imagine the past or think of a future time in their own minds. According to Tulving, so far there is no objective evidence that animals or young children have episodic memory.

Cartoon by Ruth Tulving. Click to enlarge.
According to Tulving, animals like his cat have no episodic memory so while they may know many things, they do not remember past experiences the way we do. They just know about them. (Drawing by Ruth Tulving)

Tulving goes even farther. He believes that some perfectly intelligent and healthy people also lack the ability to remember personal experiences. These people have no episodic memory; they know but do not remember. Such people have not yet been identified, but Tulving predicts they soon will be.

Tulving believes one could use a PET scanner to tell whether a person is using episodic memory, remembering an event such as a wedding, or semantic memory, recalling what a wedding ceremony means. In other words, it is now possible to “read people’s minds,” though in a very limited way. Reading minds is one of the dreams of cognitive science and now, thanks to functional neuroimaging, it seems much more possible than only a short time ago. In this respect, cognitive psychology and other branches of brain science have made great progress. As Tulving says, “Progress: knowing more about nature now than we did before is what the game called science is all about.”

Tulving in PET scanner. Click to enlarge.

One method Tulving has used to understand human memory is called functional neuroimaging, a way of seeing inside a living, functioning brain without hurting it. A positron emission tomograph (PET) is a brain-scanning instrument that shows which parts of a brain are functioning during the scan. pet shows where sugar, the body’s energy source, is being used up fastest in the brain. Neurologists believe that increased brain activity requires increased sugar consumption at the site of the activity. A person having a pet scan is injected with a special kind of radioactive sugar tracer during the procedure. By looking at pet scan maps of the brain, scientists can tell which parts of the brain were functioning during the scan. The procedure can be done while a person is learning something, or while the same person recalls what they have learned. Glowing sections of the brains below show active, functioning regions.

A pet scan subject is fitted with a plastic face mask to minimize head movement. For a typical session, usually six to 10 single scans are done, spaced about 10 minutes apart. Each scan lasts about two minutes, during which the subject is engaged in a particular mental activity. The cognitive activity begins at the beginning of the two-minute period, shortly after the subject receives the injection. The tracer reaches the brain in about eight seconds and then the actual scanning begins, lasting 40 to 60 seconds.

Encoding and retrieving memory. Click to enlarge.

Encoding Brain: Tulving’s experiments show that when people are trying to “encode” words in memory (learning), the frontal and temporal cortex in the left hemisphere “lights up” with activity, but the right hemisphere encoding left does not.

Retrieving Brain: When people “recall” previously learned material, the right frontal cortex comes very much alive retrieval right. The left hemisphere is active in retrieval, too, but to a smaller extent than the right.


Human memory is still a big mystery to Tulving. For instance, how do we travel back into our own personal past using only our minds?

Explore Further

Endel Tulving, “Episodic Memory: From Mind to Brain,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2002.

Endel Tulving and Fergus I. M. Craik, The Oxford Handbook Of Memory, Oxford University Press, 2000.

McGill University website on how memory works.

Career Advice

So You Want to Be a Psychologist

Most psychologists are employed in practical settings — hospitals, schools, businesses, governments and the military. Many are not engaged in scientific research, which is carried out in universities and research institutions. Behavioural psychologists are interested in how people, and animals, behave in different situations, and why they do what they do. Behavioural psychologists do not pay much attention to the “mind” of their subjects, the inner thoughts or feelings related to behaviour. Many behaviours can be understood without knowing exactly what is going on in the brain. Counselling psychologists pay more attention to the minds of their clients, helping people cope with difficult feelings arising from life’s hard events such as lost love, death, insecurity and depression.

Psychologists can expect to earn an average of from $35,000 to $100,000 per year. Endel Tulving says, “When it comes to jobs, people naturally try to make rational decisions. They ask: ‘Why should I do this or that? How much will a job pay?’ But life usually doesn’t work like that.” And he is glad it does not, because it’s not the best approach to choosing a career. A better method is to experiment (in your mind, if necessary) to find a job that seems interesting to begin with and keeps your interest over time. “And if you are doing a job, and find something more interesting, change the job. In your life you will find people who inspire you. Emulate them, says Tulving.” As a final piece of advice he adds, “The more you learn and know in the area of your work, the more interesting your jobs and projects become.”

There are many jobs in psychology, including career, emotional, marital and youth counsellors; clinical, experimental, behavioural-modification, child, cognitive, developmental, educational, engineering or industrial psychologist; neuropsychologist; and organizational, military, social, sport and vocational psychologist.

Career ideas:

  • Counseling (such as career, emotional, marital, teen, etc.)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Experimental Psychology
  • Behavioral modification psychologist
  • Child psychologist
  • Clinical psychologist
  • Cognitive psychologist
  • Developmental psychologist
  • Educational psychologist
  • Engineering psychologist
  • Industrial psychologist
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Organizational psychologist
  • Military psychologist
  • Psychotherapist
  • Research psychologist
  • School psychologist
  • Social psychologist
  • Sport psychologist
  • Vocational psychologist

The Person

May 26, 1927
Toronto, Ontario
Family Members
  • Father: Juhan
  • Mother: Linda
  • Spouse: Ruth Mikkelsaar
  • Children: daughters Elo Ann and Linda
creative, impatient, positive, optimistic
Favorite Music
Dvorak New World Symphony, opening movement; anything by Sibelius
Other Interests
Tennis, walking, chess, history of science
Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre, North York, Ontario
  • BA (Honours Psychology), University of Toronto, 1953
  • MA (Psychology), University of Toronto, 1954
  • PhD (Experimental Psychology), Harvard University, 1957
  • Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, Canada Council 1976;
  • Howard Crosby Warren Medal, Society of Experimental Psychologists, 1982
  • Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award, American Psychology Association 1983
  • Foreign Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986
  • Guggenheim Fellowship, 1987
  • Foreign Associate, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 1988
  • William James Fellow, American Psychological Society, 1990
  • Foreign Member, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1991
  • Fellow, Royal Society of London, 1992
  • Killam Prize, Canada Council, 1994
  • Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achievement, American Psychological Foundation, 1994
  • Foreign Member, Academia Europaea, 1996
  • McGovern Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1996
  • Foreign Member, Estonian Academy of Sciences, 2002
  • Gairdner International Award, 2005
  • Officer of the Order of Canada, 2006
  • Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, 2007
Tulving had no "official" advisor at either the University of Toronto or Harvard. His MA thesis was read by E. A. Bott, who was the Head of the Department of Psychology at U Toronto, and his "unofficial" advisor at Harvard, who knew about what he was doing for his dissertation, was E.G. Heinemann, an Instructor in the Department of Psychology.
Last Updated
May 10, 2011
Personal Webpage Profile viewed 101213 times

Other scientists who may be of interest:

question #3927

Endel Tulving, Is it possible that what we call "remembering the past" and "imagining the future" are, in essence, the same thing? Our cultural bias toward labelling the one "real" and the other "imaginary" doesn't stand up to analysis. My research into what makes sports figures and business people successful indicates that continual focusing on the future, to reach goals, opens a kind of doorway to the future, akin to memory, that allows very accurate information to come through, in what they tend to call "intuition". Is it possible that thinking is in fact time travelling?

Read answer

Read Endel Tulving's answers to questions


Try some easy experiments that test how well your mind can remember some simple lists.

Do activity