HEBB AWARD WINNER 2010 / GAGNANT DU PRIX HEBB 2010: When Learning Met Memory

Article excerpt

The first sentence of the introduction to Hebb's (1949) classic monograph, The Organization of Behavior, is "It might be argued that the task of the psychologist, the task of understanding behaviour and reducing the vagaries of human thought to a mechanical process of cause and effect, is a more difficult one than that of any other scientist" (p. xi). Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of human learning and memory, given our truly remarkable ability to acquire and retain prodigious amounts of information. This article is divided into two parts. The first part sketches my lifelong fascination with learning that led me to study first memory, then attention, and then their interplay, with examples of a few interesting findings along that path. The second part details recent work in my laboratory exploring a simple yet quite powerful encoding technique: Saying things aloud improves memory for them. This benefit, which we call the production effect, likely occurs by enhancing the distinctiveness of the things said aloud, and may constitute a beneficial study method. Understanding how we learn and remember is ultimately a crucial step in understanding ourselves.

Keywords: memory, attention, learning, production, distinctiveness

I am honoured - and absolutely delighted - to be the recipient of the 2010 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award from the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science. As a Canadian, a Hebb student at McGiIl, and a "charter member" and former President of the Society, this has very special meaning to me. I am particularly pleased that this occasion also gives me an opportunity to recognise and thank many people without whom I certainly would not have received this tribute.1

In my undergraduate years at McGiIl University (1966-1971), I had no idea at the time what a privilege it was to have taken introductory psychology from Donald Hebb (and Ronald Melzack, Peter Milner, and Muriel Stern - a truly amazing line-up); indeed, by the time I graduated, Hebb had become Chancellor of the university, and it was he who "capped" me at convocation. My teachers at McGiIl, among them Don Donderi, who hired me as a research assistant in the summer after my third year, and Mike Corballis, who taught my first attention and memory course in my fourth year, were terrific, somehow seeing through my shyness to my emerging captivation with psychological research.

My introduction to actual cognitive research came in the summer of 1970 when Don Donderi hired me as a research assistant to help visiting scientist Yuji Baba carry out some studies on stabilized retinal images (see Pritchard, Heron, & Hebb, 1960). I built a dark adaptation room and constructed stimulus cards and did many other tasks that introduced me to careful methodology, all the while realising how much I was enjoying the work and looking forward to finding out what would happen in the project. The goal was to examine how meaningful Japanese Kanji characters versus nonmeaningful but equivalently complex artificial characters broke down for Japanese-speaking versus non- Japanese-speaking people when the characters were stabilized. [My recollection is that the characters broke down in such a way as to preserve meaning only when the real Kanji characters were viewed by native Japanese speakers, but that could easily be a false memory based on my recollection of the hypothesis!] Sometime near the end of that summer, I told one of the graduate students with whom I shared an office how excited I had been to get the job; he smiled and told me that I had been the only applicant. And so began my research career.

When BA Met PhD

In graduate school at the University of Washington (19711975) - which I carefully selected on the basis of "adventure quotient," it being the farthest away from Montréal - I was fortunate indeed to be Tom Nelson's first graduate student, and to have Geoff Loftus and Earl (Buz) Hunt as my other committee members. …