Natural Learning – Part 4: The Ebbinghaus Effect – the art of forgetfulness


I’ve a grand memory for forgetting.


This last article of four will share what is probably the best example of the ‘separate and combine’ principle that I know of. It’s such a good example because it also takes into account how our memory can best be utilised with as little effort as possible. We will get to see with practice that the more natural something is to us the more naturally we find the sweet spot of effort versus outcome. Remember Goldilocks?

Most of us would say that remembering is more important than forgetting. Having a good memory is after all a prerequisite for intelligence.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was an early 20th century German psychologist. In 1885, Ebbinghaus came up with an hypothesis on the exponential nature of forgetting. His aim was to demonstrate what happens when we learn something but do not use repetition to help us retain the information. As obvious as this sounds, saying one person has a good memory and someone else’s memory is poor is not comparing like with like if only one of them has used repetition to help them remember. Both memories may be equally strong (or poor); it’s the repetition that’s truly important.

Ebbinghaus focused his studies on transience which is the natural process of forgetting that occurs with time. The subconscious mind forgets what we do not make an effort to remember. If we don’t make some effort to highlight the importance of what we’ve learned the subconscious deems it unimportant and it is soon overtaken by what it perceives to be more important.

Figure 1 – The Ebbinghaus Effect


It’s probably no surprise to you that when we review, relearn and recap we assist our learning process. This means that if we learn something new and do not follow it up at all, the new information will be lost within days, weeks and months. Here are some more of the key points from Ebbinghaus’s work:

  1. How we best remember.
    Workplace training courses rarely make use of scientific findings about memory. It’s seldom that training courses are followed up by a set of shorter sessions at defined intervals. If they did, those courses would look like this as an example:

    1. Initial training: five days.
    2. First follow-up: a month later for half a day.
    3. Second follow-up: three months later for two hours.
    4. Third and final follow-up: six months later for one hour.

    These extra sessions would be less about aiming for a 100% retention rate and more about using the intervals to both remind us and focus on the most helpful content from the initial training when it is rolled out into the real world. The follow-ups could be via media such as teleconferencing or even in packages which the attendees complete in their own space and time.

    You can do this for yourself with this article. When you’ve finished it set a date to reread it in a few weeks or months—the curve in Figure 1 shows how much this will boost your retention rate by becoming Repetition Number 1.

    If you want to test Ebbinghaus’s retention findings even more, why not add some reminders in your diary to come back and reread this article yet again to make Repetition Number 2. It’s best if you write the dates down in advance rather than relying on your memory—as we are about to discover!

  2. The best time to refresh your learning is when you are just about to forget.At first this part of Ebbinghaus’s findings totally confused me and reading (b) felt like reading a puzzle. Then I wondered if the memory muscles are like physical muscles where resting is critical between workouts if we want to get the best out of them. But also, too long a break between workouts is inefficient. Then the optimal timing for refreshing the memory made complete sense.

It may well be that we are subconsciously trying to forget what does not work for us rather than learning from it.


How we best remember to forget…

Ebbinghaus’s findings are less about the skill of remembering and more about the skill of forgetting. It may well be that when we are going about our daily business on autopilot we are subconsciously trying to forget what does not work for us rather than learning from it. This of course cannot work as we are still giving it attention and keeping it alive.

I believe that when we truly learn something, the mind directs useful energy to the new learning and cuts the energy feed to what was held previously.

This allows us to be done with what doesn’t work and file it in the trash where it belongs. And we can move forward with the new learning in place directing the fresh behaviour that naturally grows from it.


Separate and Combine…

I first applied Ebbinghaus’s findings to my own life on a three-day training course I’d completed at work. I set up dates in my diary and reviewed the training materials over a set of intervals as per Figure 1. What stood out for me was that it felt very natural to go back over the materials this way. What might have otherwise felt like a chore was very enjoyable even though the subject itself was highly technical in nature.

Let’s revisit separate and combine. With the Ebbinghaus Effect the separate part can be found in the questions that ask the memory to remind itself of what it is on the verge of forgetting. This is what increases retention.

In terms of combine, with the Ebbinghaus Effect engagement makes reviewing what was learned just before you forget it an enjoyable experience as it is so natural. The mind receives pleasure in reforging the connection. It’s not too different to solving an enjoyable puzzle.


Maximising your time and energy…

If you would like to test the Ebbinghaus Effect for yourself, you could pick something you have learned in your life recently and revisit it at increasing periodic intervals spending less time on it each time as you activate and prioritise your memory muscles rather than your learning muscles.

You could use one of these articles or even the whole series if you found them useful. Simply re-read them or increase your engagement by applying the interactive exercises provided. Be mindful that you must put your reminders in the hands of something other than your own memory. An electronic form of time management works best for me.


Summary points:

  • The findings of Herman Ebbinghaus provide us with a practical way of seeing the separate and combine dynamic in a practical context.
  • The understanding and dynamics of forgetting counter-intuitively improves our use of our memory mechanisms.
  • We remember something best when we are reminded of it just as we are about to forget it.


Overview of Natural Learning Articles One through to Four

I hope you have found some useful information in these four articles. My aim was to give you some ideas around how learning can be made more enjoyable by working the mechanics of the human mind.

Just to recapitulate what we have learned, hopefully as naturally as possible:

  1. Separate and Combine
    Seeing learning as a series of breaking things down and putting bits back together in a certain order, over and over…naturally.
  1. The Separate Dynamic: the power in the questions we ask
    The human mind has the equal ability to provide us with answers that can be described as ‘great’ or as ‘garbage’. The question we ask is just like setting a destination in a Satnav. You get what you ask for so it’s good to set the destination you truly want.
  1. The Combine Dynamic: the art of engaging the mind
    The mind does not respond well to force when we want to learn effectively. Engaging it is much more helpful. Learning is more natural when it taps into enjoyment.
  1. The Ebbinghaus Effect: the art of forgetfulness
    The world as we know it is very focused on memorising without understanding the dynamics of how we can utilise forgetfulness. The findings of Herman Ebbinghaus allow us to see the separate and combine dynamic in a very practical context.

Natural Learning – Part 3: The Combine Dynamic: the art of engaging the mind


Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.


Article Two looked at the former of the ‘Separate and Combine’ principle and we will now look at the latter element. The ‘combine’ dynamic can come about in many ways. Engagement of the mind is one that has captured my attention. I will follow with three examples to give you an idea of how the combine dynamic via engagement could assist one or more areas in your own life.

Firstly, let’s look at what ‘combine’ means (via

  1. To bring into or join in a close union or whole; unite:
    She combined the ingredients to make the cake. They combined the two companies.
  2. To possess or exhibit in union:
  3. To unite for a common purpose; join forces:
    After the two factions combined, they proved invincible.

I like to think of combine as ‘to bring together’ and see ‘engagement’ as one of a whole array of ideas that can bring about a combination.


Taking ownership…

In years gone by, charity organisations supplying assistance to areas suffering from drought or low rainfall usually consisted of shipping large quantities of water to these areas. It was logistically very complex and expensive.

Charities such as have shifted their approach so that they now are proactively directing their efforts at low-cost, sustainable technologies to help the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water and safe sanitation.

This includes water technologies such as protected hand-dug wells, boreholes, tube wells, rainwater harvesting schemes, protected springs, gravity flow schemes, sand dams and infiltration galleries.

If hand pumping won’t work and support is required, electrical, diesel and solar pumps are sometimes used. Communities are trained to cover operation and maintenance costs and basic spare parts are sourced locally. It’s vital that the methods used are sustainable hence the importance of the local people engaging in the process so they can take full ownership of their own water supplies.

Engagement is self-empowering; it comes from taking ownership of the process.

This includes educating local engineers not just to install and maintain the technology but also in improving and building on the technology.

As the innovation envelope opens up, the use of even further-reaching technology is being developed and tested with ‘water vapour’ ideas. These make use of the clear night air which is so low in temperature that it provides a natural method of vaporisation which can be tapped into (pun intended). As can be seen below in Illustration 1, it is the culmination of various advancing technologies that can make for a highly sustainable and self-generating water source.

Yanko Design – Water Vapour Project (1)
Yanko Design – Water Vapour Project (1)


Helping people to help themselves…

Another example closer to home is that of the Big Issue the street newspaper founded in 1991and published on four continents. It is written by professional journalists and sold by homeless individuals. The Big Issue is one of the UK’s leading social businesses and exists to offer homeless people, or individuals at risk of homelessness, the opportunity to earn a legitimate income thereby helping them to reintegrate into mainstream society.

TheBigIssueOne of the informal mottos of the Big Issue is ‘hand up – not hand out’ as it is the seller’s engagement with the magazine and their customers that assists them in restoring their feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.


Striking a Balance…

As a final example, I’m going to talk about a friend of mine. She had always been fit and active but a knee injury meant that she had to reduce her exercise activities for six months. She was concerned that she might put on some unwanted weight and wasn’t very keen on the idea of adopting a strict diet. She had always thought of dieting as a form of punishment. She stumbled by chance upon a talk about nutrition which said that applying a ratio helped a lot of people maintain their ideal weight. The idea was that most people’s bodies can handle a level of ‘unhealthy food’ with ease as long as it is balanced out with an appropriate ratio of highly nutritious food.

The 80/20 ratio of highly nutritious food

The 80/20 ratio of highly nutritious food to fun food was given as an example. She tested this out for a month and to her surprise found that she enjoyed it. Eating nutritiously 80% of the time and then being able to reward herself for the remaining 20% worked great for her. So much so that when her knee recovered, she simply tweaked the percentages to suit her new activity levels.

By engaging with this new way of thinking about food she was able to make a deal with herself and stick with it. It suited her lifestyle and goals. She had discovered her ‘path of least resistance’

I hope these three examples work like fresh oil in an engine; lubricating the mechanics of your mind so your imagination flows easier and ideas loosen up. Now let’s turn our attention around to you…

You might ask ‘are there any areas of my life where I would like to feel more engaged?

By having these three examples oiling the wheels of your thinking, you may find yourself sometime in the future looking back and remembering how the engagement process began for you.


Compounding your benefits…

Let’s take a look at ‘your problem’ from Article One. How would you say it is looking now? Has there been any shift in your mind-set from the great questions you’ve asked of yourself (Article Two)? Or has engaging with an element of this problem brought a change? (Article Three).

I’ll just share a brief example of my own. I recently noticed that the world of rapidly increasing technology means that people are more and more drawn to data in visual formats. I thought that podcast and webinar technologies could be a very useful way of sharing concepts and ideas on fascinating topics. I asked myself ‘Is there someone out there who is really good at sharing the basics?’ I carried out a search and discovered a lady by the name of Amy Porterfield who offered an information webinar about how a person can create their own high quality webinars. The resistance I felt before the webinar was about a 7 on the 1 to 10 scale and was brought down to a 3 afterwards.


Summary points:

  • Engaging the mind is just one very useful example of the ‘combine’ aspect in action.
  • Engagement can come in many forms and usually has an element of transforming what was a problem into a valuable life-learning opportunity.
  • Engagement is less about forcing and more about inviting the mind to change roles from spectator to participant.




Natural Learning – Part 2: The Separate Dynamic: the power in the questions we ask


A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.


Article One introduced a learning dynamic called ‘Separate and Combine’. We will now look in more detail at the ‘separate’ element.

The term GIGO—Garbage In Garbage Out—has been used for years in the world of computers. Although this term is not as widespread as it was, I feel it is even more important as the rate of change in technology increases and continues to become even more essential to how we get through the day. Apple’s idea of the average person having a computer in their pocket disguised as a mobile phone has become a reality for most of us, myself included. As there is little chance of science going backwards, we might as well find a way to discern the huge amounts of increasing information almost instantly available at our fingertips.

GIGO—Garbage In Garbage Out

GIGO may be a bit black and white, but it is still useful. We know, for example, that a Google search has no qualms in giving you what you ask for and it is completely literal. I have just completed a search on the term GIGO and got back the response… ‘About 3,760,000 results (0.56 seconds)’.

The human subconscious mind is a form of search engine that’s very similar to Google: it can only provide a high quality answer if a high quality question has been asked.

There are a number of ways that we can improve the quality of the questions we ask. Firstly however, let’s counter-intuitively take some learning from the world of technology, specifically on how to handle technology without getting caught up in it.

The Apple iPad introduction was a pivotal moment for bridging the gap between personal computers and smart phones. This is probably pretty obvious to you. What may be less obvious is how Apple handled the challenge they faced; how could they create a sense of greater simplicity, reliability and usability when they were applying and integrating ever-increasing new technologies? For example, they wanted as few moving parts as possible so they moved to touch screens. Also, they wanted a display that a 5-year-old would intuitively be able to learn how to use without needing instruction from an adult. Well-designed icons provided this by tapping into the idea of ‘more pictures, fewer words’.

What has this to do with the questions we ask you might wonder? Well that is a great question if you don’t mind me saying.

Apple’s example teaches us that high quality questions essentially have a direction towards simplicity. From a marketing perspective it could be phrased as ‘simplicity sells’.


An alternative…

I think we should still keep the GIGO acronym but change ‘garbage’ for a more positive word. I like to use ‘great’ but of course feel free to use whatever works best for you.

The quality of the questions we ask determines the quality of the answers we receive. In fact, we could push this even further and say that:

The quality of a person’s life is directly proportional to the quality of the questions they ask.



The Goldilocks approach…

I like using examples so here is one from my early school years. I really struggled with maths and would often ask myself ‘why am I rubbish at maths?’ in the hope that it would somehow assist me. It is obvious to me now that this was a great way to make the subject even harder as my mind had to answer the question and would come up with all kinds of justifications which reinforced my low opinion of myself in this respect.

Purely by chance I heard a talk by a teacher who used Goldilocks and the Three Bears to explain something about learning. For those of you that don’t know the children’s story, Goldilocks (due to her blonde curly hair) stumbles upon the house when the daddy, mummy and baby bear are out in the woods.

The Goldilocks approach…

In desperate need of food and shelter she ventures into the house and tests out various options. One of these is the firmness of the beds before she takes a well-needed sleep. She discovers one bed that is too hard, one that is too soft and finally one that is just the right firmness for her to have a nap. No prizes for guessing which bed belonged to which bear.

The teacher explained that all problems (including those maths problems) are made up of sizes. Maths problems for example are always additions or subtractions at their fundamental level. The trick is to break the more complex problems down into the right size where it can be tackled.

This simple analogy provided a fresh way for me to look at my maths ability. The question in my mind had been transformed to ‘how do I break this sum or equation down to make it simpler?’ Not only did it allow me to improve my ability then but in later years I completed a degree in engineering where this question was just as applicable as the day I first heard it.

The trick is to break the more complex problems down into the right size where it can be tackled.


Natural Learning…

The wise teacher in the above scenario taught me that the greatest gift an educator can give is to assist people in asking great questions of themselves and others—Great In Great Out (GIGO).

It could also be said therefore that ‘Unnatural Learning’ is where you ask a Garbage question and expect the universe to bring you a Great answer. That simply ain’t ever gonna happen!

Now think back to Article One and the problem that is proving to be a sticking point in your own life. With what we have additionally covered in Article Two:

  • Could you reduce it in size somehow so that it’s more accessible for your mind?
  • Could you ask a Great In Great Out (GIGO) question that could shift the situation from the problem category to the obstacle category, or an obstacle to a challenge?

Just a thought!


Summary points:

  • The human mind can equally provide us with answers that can be described as ‘great’ or as ‘garbage’.
  • The world of increasing technology counter-intuitively has simplicity at the core of its intent.
  • Natural Learning is the natural outcome of asking high quality (great) questions.

Natural Learning – Part 1: Learning How to Learn


“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”


It’s a bit strange that there is very little instruction in any of our formal schooling about the fundamentals of how the human mind works. We ‘learn how to learn’ more by chance rather than by consciously applying ourselves to it and that seems like an ineffective approach to me. It seems that a large percentage of what is taught is taught that way because it has always been done that way. A full understanding of how we best learn is not part of the picture. Could ‘learning how to learn’ at any stage of life be extremely useful? I believe this to be the case.
This is the first of four articles aimed less at providing new information about learning and more at reminding ourselves about what we intuitively know already when we tap into it. (This less and more dynamic which can be called leverage will be covered in depth in further articles).

We will commence with a perspective that the ancient Daoists of China discovered and applied thousands of years ago. It enabled them to develop complex and fundamental understandings of the science of the mind and body. In recent decades quantum physics is now verifying the teachings of these early scientists.


One of the simplest Daoist principles is called ‘Separate and Combine’

Whenever a person learns something, a level of their mind that is mostly subconscious breaks down the new information (separate) and then integrates it back into what they already know (combine). There may be some conscious learning occurring as well but it’s not as obvious once a person leaves the infant stage of development. A certain amount of learning will occur during the day but there is also an amount that will occur during the sleeping phases especially during REM (Rapid Eye Movement). In essence, sense is being made of what was learned; the new learnings are being integrated whilst outdated data is being cleared out.
Think of your mind as a computer for a moment. The daily updates work much better when the trash facility cleans up and keeps the memory banks clear for the most useful tasks. So when you go to sleep, you are in effect pushing a button like this:

 trash facility cleans up and keeps the memory banks clear for the most useful tasks

The separate and combine idea is very useful when a person wants to enhance an area of their life, such as learning a subject at school, a job-related skill, or something to do with a hobby. Whenever a person researches a topic, they in effect apply a separate and combine process as they integrate the new information they discover.


An example in action…

An example of my own was learning salsa dancing. I had moved to Dublin for a work assignment and, not knowing many people, I looked for ways to socialise and meet new friends. I only had time to attend one class a week and knew that generally speaking two nights a week was needed to really advance.

I knew that many sportspeople use this breakdown:

1. Strategy

2. Tactics

3. Skills

I considered that dancing might not be so different to sport in terms of learning so I worked with the idea to see if it could help me make the best progress I could with my limited available time.

I was already starting to apply the ‘separate’ part of ‘separate and combine’. I was breaking things down into elements that I could focus on. Examples of each include:

separate and combine

When strategy, skills and tactics were ‘combined’, I found myself moving through the beginner and improver stages incredibly swiftly whilst still enjoying what each class brought me.

You’ll find the separate and combine dynamic everywhere once you start looking; it’s just that you may not have been consciously aware of it yet.

Consciously applying separate and combine can make huge improvements in what we learn in a specific period of time.


Conscious application…

So with this information in mind, you might want to think of a problem/obstacle/challenge in your own life that could benefit from a change in mind-set. You don’t need to do anything about it right now other than simply noting where you are with it.

If however, you would like to maximise your benefits, I recommend two considerations:

1. Pick something a ‘mid-sized problem’ and not one that’s going to be a struggle at this stage.
2. On a scale of 1 to 10, note how much resistance that problem brings up right now. One being hardly any and 10 being a brick wall. If you have chosen a mid-sized problem, you will likely be somewhere in the 4 to 7 range. Your choice completely of course!

As this series progresses look back at that situation and apply what you’ve learned from the article you’re reading. Bit by bit, you will consciously apply separate and combine for yourself and will learn how helpful it can be in making real improvements to any part of your life.


Looking forward…

In Articles Two and Three we will look in more detail at Separate and Combine as individual elements. Obviously, this in itself is using the ‘Separate’ dynamic.

In Article Four, we will look at an example of Separate and Combine which is perhaps the most valuable one that I have discovered so far. It is known as the Ebbinghaus Effect.


Summary points

  • Learning how to learn seems so obviously fundamental.
  • ‘Separate and combine’ is a very simple idea yet offers a doorway to tap into the way we naturally learn.
  • When we learn, we are in effect updating what we already know via an integration process.