Ebbinghaus was the first modern researcher to systematically study memory. He was inspired in part by the work and writings of Fechner. Ebbinghaus was interested in associations (a philosophy or theory of the day that stated that people learn, remember, and organize concepts by ideas being attracted to each other in the mind much in the same way that physical objects are attracted to each other through the laws of magnetism or gravity.
Once Ebbinghaus discovered the work of Fechner he started formulating ideas for research into human memory. He was still interested in associations but needed a way to experimentally research learning and memory. Ebbinghaus started using short nonsense syllables and serial learning to test associationism. He discovered that people (i.e., himself – he was his own and only research participant) could only remember about 7 of the nonsense syllables from a series when only being allowed 1 repetition. George Miller in the mid-1900s investigated this further and showed that humans can only hold 7 (plus or minus 2) words or “chunks” or information in active memory. Ebbinghaus was also famous for establishing a forgetting curve for newly-learned nonsense syllables. Without any relearning or repetition people quickly forgot learned stimuli (down to less than 40% retention within 1 day) but could still remember about 20% 31 days later. Ebbinghaus’ research of memory spurred the large field of memory research that we have today.