Endel Tulving

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

Early life

Tulving was born in Petseri, Estonia (now, Pechory, Russia). As a child, Tulving was more into sports and showed little interest in science.[1] At age 17, near the end of World War II, Tulving fled Estonia before it was occupied by the Soviet Union. Together with his younger brother Hannes, Tulving was separated from their family and sent to Germany where he finished high school and worked as a teacher.[1] He briefly studied medicine at Heidelberg before he immigrated to Canada in 1949.[1] In 1950, he married Ruth Mikkelsaar and they had three daughters: Elo Ann, Ruth, and Linda.[1]


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.[2] In 2005 he won a Gairdner Foundation International Award, Canada's leading prize in biology and medicine.[3] 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.[4] His published works in 1970s were particularly notable because it coincided with the new determination by many cognitive psychologists to confirm their theories in neuroscience using brain-imaging techniques.[5] During this period, Tulving mapped the areas of the brain, which are considered active during the encoding and retrieval of memory, effectively associating the medial temporal lobe and the hippocampus with episodic memory.[5]

Episodic and semantic memory

Tulving first made the distinction between episodic and semantic memory in a 1972 book chapter.[6] 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.[7] Tulving's 1983 book Elements of Episodic Memory elaborated on these concepts, and has been cited over 3000 times. According to Tulving, the ability to travel back and forward in time mentally is unique to humans and this is made possible by the autonoetic consciousness and is the essence of episodic memory.[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".

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 an 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 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, 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 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]

Estonian Studies Foundation

In 1982, architect Elmar Tampõld proposed the idea of reinvesting Tartu College's surplus revenues for the founding of a Chair of Estonian Studies at the University of Toronto. The university agreed and in 1983, he helped establish the Chair of Estonian Studies Foundation with fellow expatriate Estonian professors Tulving and chemical engineer Olev Träss. The three men made the initial presentation to the University of Toronto and Tampõld became the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Chair of Estonian Studies Foundation.[20] Since 1999, Jüri Kivimäe, Professor of History and Chair of Estonian Studies has headed the University of Toronto's Elmar Tampõld Chair of Estonian Studies.[21]


  • Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of Episodic Memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Tulving, Endel (2002). "Episodic Memory: From Mind to Brain". Annual Review of Psychology. 53: 1–25. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135114. PMID 11752477.


  1. Sheehy, Noel; Forsythe, Alexandra (2004). Fifty Key Thinkers in Psychology. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 230. ISBN 9780415167758.
  2. "The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: Endel Tulving". Retrieved 2009-05-01.
  3. "News | University of Toronto".
  4. Haggbloom, Steven J.; Warnick, Renee; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; Powell, John L., III; Beavers, Jamie; Monte, Emmanuelle (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139.
  5. Atkinson, Sam; Tomley, Sarah (2012). The Psychology Book. London: DK. p. 191. ISBN 9781465413857.
  6. Tulving, E. (1972). "Episodic and semantic memory". In Tulving, E.; Donaldson, W. (eds.). Organization of Memory. New York: Academic Press. pp. 381–402.
  7. Tulving, E.; Madigan, S. A. (1970). "Memory and Verbal Learning". Annual Review of Psychology. 21: 437–484. doi:10.1146/annurev.ps.21.020170.002253.
  8. Tulving, Endel (2013). Memory, Consciousness and the Brain: The Tallinn Conference. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. p. 331. ISBN 978-1841690155.
  9. Tulving, Endel; Thomson, Donald M. (1973). "Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory". Psychological Review. 80 (5): 352–373. doi:10.1037/h0020071.
  10. Tulving, Endel (1974). "Cue-Dependent Forgetting: When we forget something we once knew, it does not necessarily mean that the memory trace has been lost; it may only be inaccessible". American Scientist. 62 (1): 74–82. JSTOR 27844717.
  11. Tulving, Endel; Pearlstone, Zena (1966). "Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 5 (4): 381–391. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(66)80048-8.
  12. Rosenbaum, R. Shayna; Köhler, Stefan; Schacter, Daniel L.; Moscovitch, Morris; Westmacott, Robyn; Black, Sandra E.; Gao, Fuqiang; Tulving, Endel (2005). "The case of K.C.: Contributions of a memory-impaired person to memory theory". Neuropsychologia. 43 (7): 989–1021. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2004.10.007. PMID 15769487.
  13. Tulving, E. (1985). "Memory and consciousness". Canadian Psychologist. 25: 1–12.
  14. Tulving, E.; Schacter, D. (1990). "Priming and human memory systems". Science. 247 (4940): 301–6. Bibcode:1990Sci...247..301T. doi:10.1126/science.2296719. JSTOR 2873625. PMID 2296719.
  15. Tulving, Endel (1985). "How many memory systems are there?". American Psychologist. 40 (4): 385–398. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.40.4.385.
  16. Roediger, Henry L.; Buckner, Randy L.; McDermott, Kathleen B. (1999). "Components of processing". Memory: Systems, Process, or Function?. pp. 31–65. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198524069.003.0003. ISBN 9780198524069.
  17. Tulving, Endel (1962). "Subjective organization in free recall of "unrelated" words". Psychological Review. 69 (4): 344–354. doi:10.1037/h0043150.
  18. Tulving, E.; Kapur, S.; Craik, F. I.; Moscovitch, M.; Houle, S. (1994). "Hemispheric encoding/retrieval asymmetry in episodic memory: Positron emission tomography findings". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 91 (6): 2016–20. Bibcode:1994PNAS...91.2016T. doi:10.1073/pnas.91.6.2016. JSTOR 2364163. PMC 43300. PMID 8134342.
  19. Tulving, Endel; Wiseman, Sandor (2013). "Relation between recognition and recognition failure of recallable words". Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society. 6: 79–82. doi:10.3758/BF03333153.
  20. University of Toronto: Estonian Studies Programme Archived 2014-01-06 at the Wayback Machine
  21. University of Tartu
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