Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett (October 2, 1886 – September 30, 1969) was a British psychologist, one of the pioneers of cognitive and experimental psychology in Great Britain. He was one of the leading figures in the early days of the experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Bartlett's most significant work was in the area of memory research. Although he applied strictly scientific methodology, he recognized that human beings invoke more than mechanical processes in remembering information. He therefore rejected the tradition of using nonsense syllables in the attempt to isolate the memory process from other cognitive and social influences, regarding those influences as crucial to understanding human memory. Bartlett's work revealed that the storage of memories in the human brain is not simple and localized, but rather involves "schemata," cognitive constructs, influenced by our past experience, our attitudes, and the social situation including cultural factors. His research has continued to be influential in our search to understand the human mind.
Bartlett was born in 1886 in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England. After receiving a private education, he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, where he studied logic and philosophy. He became a tutor at the University of Cambridge in 1909, and his interest gradually, mostly due to the influence of the physician, ethnologist, and psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, turned to anthropology and psychology. In 1913 Bartlett was awarded a fellowship at St. John's College.
When in 1912, C. S. Myers (1873-1947) decided to open an experimental psychology laboratory at Cambridge—the first of its kind in Britain—Bartlett helped him wholeheartedly. In 1937 Bartlett wrote an article about the early history of the Cambridge lab, describing the events from this significant period of his life.
After World War I started in 1914, Bartlett became the "relief director" of the lab, starting a series of studies of different kinds. Among others, he did research on the detection of faint sounds and individual differences in how subjects described pictures. During that time he met Emily Mary Smith, a fellow researcher, whom he married in 1920. He also performed several studies on the retrieval of memories, and perception and memory performance in people of other cultures, which became the basis for his later work on memory.
In 1922 Bartlett became the director of the Cambridge laboratory, and in 1924, an editor of the British Journal of Psychology, a position he held for 24 years. In 1931 he was elected the first full-time professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge. During this time, Cambridge grew to be the center of experimental psychology, with students and professors increasing in number. By 1957, 10 out of 16 professorship positions in Great Britain were held by students of Myers and Bartlett.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Bartlett published numerous works on cognition and memory, including Psychology and Primitive Culture (1923), Feeling, imaging, and thinking (1925), Psychology and the Soldier (1927), and The Problem of Noise (1934). In 1932, he wrote his masterpiece Remembering, in which he described his work on conventionalization. The same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a rare distinction for a psychologist.
With Kenneth Craik, Bartlett was responsible for setting up the Medical Research Council's Applied Psychology Research Unit (APU) at Cambridge in 1944, serving as the director of the unit after Craik's early death in 1945. Bartlett performed this duty until 1953. He was knighted in 1948 for services to the Royal Air Force, on the basis of his wartime work in applied psychology.
Bartlett retired from teaching in 1951, after almost 30 years of work at Cambridge. He died on September 30, 1969, at the age of 83.
Bartlett’s interests lay primarily in the areas of perception, memory, and cognition. In his book Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932), he examined the influence of social factors on memory, describing his long-time research on memory recall and reconstruction. Bartlett paid special attention to the role of personal attitudes, interests, and social conventions on memory recall.
In his approach to memory problems, Bartlett broke away from the German tradition. Instead of using nonsense syllables, he gave meaningful material to the subjects to memorize. He was not interested in mere recall of the material. Rather, his purpose was to study the effects of past experiences on memorization and memory retention.
Bartlett used two methods in his study. In the first, the method of repeated reproduction, the participants were given a picture or told a story, which they needed to reproduce several times over several weeks. In the second, the method of serial reproduction, the participants were given a picture or told a story, which they needed to pass it on to another participant. Based on the results, Bartlett concluded that individuals, instead of merely reproducing the material, re-created it in light of their past experiences. Recall tended to be biased, and depended on numerous things: attitudes, interests, and social standards. He supported his claims with cross-cultural studies, in which he was able to show that cultural factors influenced the retrieval of memories.
Bartlett claimed that memories were not simply stored in one place in the brain, but are dispersed across complex “memory schemata.” These schemata consist of numerous individual memory traces, which can be retrieved or even changed separately from each other. Different schemata exist in the human brain, linked together, Bartlett claimed, by instincts, interests, and ideals, with instincts playing the leading role in childhood, and interests and ideals later in life.
Bartlett was a successful pioneer in experimental psychology. In his honor, the UK Ergonomics Society awards a Bartlett medal, and the Experimental Psychology Society holds an annual Bartlett Lecture.
Bartlett pioneered both the field of experimental psychology, and the specific area of memory research. Bartlett’s studies of memory were different from the traditional experiments such as those of Hermann Ebbinghaus. They expanded our understanding of how people memorize things. He discovered that, rather than just repeating what has been remembered, we re-construct the past, reworking our memories in the light of our past experience. The notion of schemata, or conceptual models, originated with Bartlett and has continued to be used in psychology into the twenty-first century.
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