Endel Tulving

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Endel Tulving (born May 26, 1927) is an Estonian Canadian experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist whose research on human memory has influenced psychological scientists, neuroscientists, and clinicians. He helped separate episodic memory into two distinct parts.

Tulving is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Toronto and his doctorate from Harvard University. In 1979, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1988 he was elected into the United States National Academy of Sciences. In 1992, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.[1] In 2005 he won a Gairdner Foundation International Award, Canada's leading prize in biology and medicine.[2] In 2006, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor. In 2007, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Tulving has published at least 200 research articles and chapters, and he is widely cited, with an h-index of 69 (as of April, 2010), and in a Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, he ranked as the 36th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.[3]

Early life

Tulving was born in Petseri, Estonia (now, Pechory, Russia). At age 17, near the end of World War II, Tulving fled Estonia before it was occupied by the Soviet Union. He immigrated to Canada in 1949. After a short stint working as a farmhand and laborer near London, Ontario, he enrolled in Honours Psychology at the University of Toronto.[4]

Episodic and semantic memory

Tulving first made the distinction between episodic and semantic memory in a 1972 book chapter.[5] Episodic memory is the ability to consciously recollect previous experiences from memory (e.g., recalling a recent family trip to Disney World), whereas semantic memory is the ability to store more general knowledge in memory (e.g., the fact that Disney World is in Florida).

This distinction was based on theoretical grounds and experimental psychology findings, and subsequently was linked to different neural systems in the brain by studies of brain damage and neuroimaging techniques. At the time, this type of theorizing represented a major departure from many contemporary theories of human learning and memory, which did not emphasize different kinds of subjective experience or brain systems.[6] Tulving's 1983 book "Elements of Episodic Memory" elaborated on these concepts, and has been cited over 3000 times [7] (see also [8]).

Encoding specificity principle

Tulving's theory of "encoding specificity" emphasizes the importance of retrieval cues in accessing episodic memories.[9] The theory states that effective retrieval cues must overlap with the to-be-retrieved memory trace. Because the contents of the memory trace are primarily established during the initial encoding of the experience, retrieval cues will be maximally effective if they are similar to this encoded information. Tulving has dubbed the process through which a retrieval cue activates a stored memory "synergistic ecphory."

Initial evidence for the encoding specificity principle came from cued recall experiments using word lists. The principle also is supported by many related experimental phenomena (e.g., the recognition failure of recallable words, state-dependent learning, transfer-appropriate processing). More recently, Tulving has argued that the appropriate retrieval cues are necessary but not sufficient to retrieve episodic memories. One also must be in a "retrieval mode" or a remembering state of mind. Empirical evidence for this theory is not as strong as that for the encoding specificity.

The finding about retrieval memory was also founded from Tulvings finding on people through PET scan. While injecting the patient with a unique type of sugar liquid that his neuroscience team was able to find with part and sides of the brain were more or less active when recall different types of memory. These implications helped Tulving and his team study the cognitive activity of a human brain and also help them to further study the encoding and retrieval of human memories.

One implication of the encoding specificity principle is that forgetting may be caused by the lack of appropriate retrieval cues, as opposed to decay of a memory trace over time or interference from other memories.[10] Another implication is that there is more information stored in memory relative to what can be retrieved at any given point (i.e., availability vs. accessibility).[11]

Amnesia and Consciousness

Tulving's research has emphasized the importance of episodic memory for our experience of consciousness and our understanding of time. For example, he conducted studies with the amnesic patient KC, who had relatively normal semantic memory but severely impaired episodic memory due to brain damage from a motorcycle accident. Tulving's work with KC highlighted the central importance of episodic memory for the subjective experience of one's self in time, an ability he dubbed "autonoetic consciousness." KC lacked this ability, failing to remember prior events and also failing to imagine or plan for the future.[12]

Tulving also developed a cognitive task to measure different subjective states in memory, called the "remember"/"know" procedure. This task has been used extensively in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.[13]

Implicit Memory and Priming

Another area where Tulving has had a significant impact is the distinction between conscious or explicit memory (such as episodic memory) and more automatic forms of implicit memory (such as priming). Along with one of his students, Professor Daniel Schacter, Tulving provided several key experimental findings regarding implicit memory.[14]

The distinction between implicit and explicit memory was a topic of considerable debate in the 1980s and 1990s. Tulving and colleagues proposed that these different memory phenomena reflected different brain systems.[15] Others argued that these different memory phenomena reflected different psychological processes, rather than different memory systems. These processes would be instantiated in the brain, of course, but they might reflect different aspects of performance from the same memory system, triggered by different task conditions. More recently, theorists have come to adopt components of each of these perspectives.[16]

Other scientific contributions

Tulving has published influential work on a variety of other topics, such as the importance of mental organization of information in memory,[17] a model of brain hemisphere specialization for episodic memory,[18] and discovery of the Tulving-Wiseman function.[19] He also has taught many students that have gone on to successful careers in psychological science and neuroscience.


  1. "The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: Endel Tulving". Retrieved 2009-05-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  2. [1]
  3. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  4. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame
  5. Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving and W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory (pp. 381–402). New York: Academic Press.
  6. Tulving, E. & Madigan, S. A. (1970). Memory and veral learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 21, 437–484.
  7. Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of Episodic Memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  8. Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1–25.
  9. Tulving, E., & Thompson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80, 352–373.
  10. Tulving, E. (1974). Cue-dependent forgetting. American Scientist, 62, 74–82.
  11. Tulving, E., & Pearlstone, Z. (1966). Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 381–391.
  12. Rosenbaum et al. (2005). The case of K.C.: contributions of a memory-impaired person to memory theory. Neuropsychologia, 43, 989–1021.
  13. Tulving, E. (1985). Memory and consciousness. Canadian Psychologist, 25, 1–12.
  14. Tulving, E. & Schacter, D.L. (1990). Priming and human memory systems. Science, 247, 301–306.
  15. Tulving, E. (1985). How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist, 40, 385–398.
  16. Roediger, H. L., Buckner, R. L., & McDermott, K. B. (1999). Components of processing. In J. K. Foster & M. Jelicic (Eds.), Memory: Systems, process, or function? (pp. 31–65). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  17. Tulving, E. (1962). Subjective organization in free recall of "unrelated" words. Psychological Review, 69, 344–354.
  18. Tulving, E., Kapur, S., Craik, F. I. M., Moscovitch, M, & Houle, S. (1994). Hemispheric encoding/retrieval asymmetry in episodic memory: Positron emission tomography findings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 91, 2016–2020.
  19. Tulving, E., & Wiseman, S. (1975). Relation between recognition and recognition failure of recallable words. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 92, 257–276.

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