Experiment objective

To show that retrieving information from memory is separate from laying down memories.

Read more background about this activity in Endel Tulving's bio...

You need

  • A friend to listen, remember, and answer questions for a few minutes.
  • A watch with a second hand to time your friend.

Ask a friend to name all the months of the year and time the response. Most people can do this in about 8 seconds. Now ask the person to name them in alphabetical order. Almost no one can do this correctly in less than two minutes. Both questions ask you to use your memory to retrieve something from your mind that you already know. Why do you think one way is faster than the other?

You can also conduct the experiment that Tulving tried with his class. Here is a list of some category-word pairs:

A metalSilver
A precious stonePearl
A relativeNiece
A birdCanary
Type of reading materialJournal
A military titleMajor
A colourViolet
A four-legged animalMouse
A piece of furnitureDresser
A part of the bodyFinger
A fruitCherry
A weaponCannon
A type of dwellingMansion
An alcoholic beverageBrandy
A crimeKidnapping
An occupationPlumber
A sportLacrosse
An article of clothingSweater
A musical instrumentSaxophone
An insectWasp

Ask your friend to listen carefully as you slowly read out each category and its corresponding word. Tell them that after they have heard all the words, you are going to ask them to recall all the words, not categories. Categories are there just to help them to get a "good mental fix" on each word. When you have finished, ask your friend to write down all the words he or she can remember. Do not help or give any hints. After they tell you that they are finished, check the list and note which ones your friend could not remember. Look in the table and say the categories as hints for the words missed. Can your friend now remember the words that he or she forgot? Was the forgotten word in memory or not? What does the exercise tell us about forgetting? So when people say they have forgotten a name or a word or a fact, what could it mean?