Four is the 'magic' number for our mind coping with information

(Medical Xpress)—According to psychological lore, when it comes to items of information the mind can cope with before confusion sets in, the "magic" number is seven.

But a new analysis by a leading Australian challenges this long-held view, suggesting the number might actually be four.

In 1956, George Miller published a paper in the influential journal Psychological Review arguing the could cope with a maximum of only seven chunks of .

The paper, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information", has since become one of the most highly cited psychology articles and has been judged by the Psychological Review as its most influential paper of all time.

But UNSW professor of psychiatry Gordon Parker says a re-analysis of the experiments used by Miller shows he missed the correct number by a wide mark.

Writing in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Scientia Professor Parker says a closer look at the evidence shows the human mind copes with a maximum of four 'chunks' of information, not seven.

"So to remember a seven numeral phone number, say 6458937, we need to break it into four chunks: 64. 58. 93. 7.   Basically four is the limit to our perception.

"That's a big difference for a paper that is one of the most highly referenced psychology articles ever – nearly a 100 percent discrepancy," he suggests.

Professor Parker says the success of the original paper lies "more in its multilayered title and Miller's evocative use of the word 'magic'," than in the science.

Professor Parker says 50 years after Miller there is still uncertainty about the nature of the brain's storage capacity limits: "There may be no limit in per se but only a limit to the duration in which items can remain active in short-term memory".

"Regardless, the consensus now is that humans can best store only four chunks in short-term ," he says.

The full discussion paper includes many exemplars of the magic of 'four'.

More information: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10… 47.2012.01919.x/full
psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/63/2/81/

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cantdrive85
2.3 / 5 (6) Nov 28, 2012
Obviously, these people didn't get the memo, the magic number is neither 7 nor 4, this has been established for nearly 40 years.

http://www.youtub...pyiB-kq0
VendicarD
3 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2012
nuge
1 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2012
It is possible to train your short term memory to hold more information.
StarGazer2011
1 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2012
"Regardless, the consensus now is that humans can best store only four chunks in short-term memory tasks," he says.

Hmm amazing how quickly 'consensus' can turn, I wonder if he did a survey or something? The 7 finding has been believed (wrongly it turns out) by 'the vast majority of scientists' for decades. I wonder if theres anything we can learn from that? :)
MrVibrating
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
It is possible to train your short term memory to hold more information.
...and i believe this is the crux of the matter. Working as a courier, these days our job details are given electronically; a monkey could do it. Years ago though all you had was a radio, pen and paper - fine if you're stationary, and it's dry, but if you're rolling and/or it's raining, you had to memorise all instructions. At first, one set of details is hard enough, but after years at this i could hold up to six sets of details - company, address, contact names for both pickup and delivery.. that's 12 names & addresses, in linked pairs, in working memory. And i wasn't special in this regard, it just came with experience, for anyone doing the job.

It's like having a number of discrete memory buffers, that only last as long as needed - i'd completely forget the instructions after completing them, but would retain them, without effort, until then, even if delivery couldn't be made until days later.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
My conclusion is that our 'RAM disks' are quite plastic in both density and duration, and this downgrading of our default 'untrained' optimums is perhaps more representative of changing lifestyles between the 1960s and today - modern electronics have made us less dependent on our own memory skills. Miller's subject's were already primed for chunking longer strings.
MrVibrating
1 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2012
...Just as a final thought - 7 (or thereabouts) does have interesting cog-sci affiliations...

Just a few that spring to mind:

In a hexagonal matrix (a consistent emergent cellular geometry) the minimum no. of cell colours that won't form adjacent cells is 7 (ie. the max number of discrete values that can be represented without redundancy)

We see seven distinct colours

Tonal systems (incl. non-western ones) divide an octave bandwidth into seven discrete chunks (ie. such as the diatonic scales & modes (the fact that there's also 7 modes is itself an incidental consequence of this predilection))

There's prolly other obvious ones i'm forgetting but still, if there is something 'magical' about the number, if only at a mechanical level, it's ultimately efficiency... an emergent byte-size, type stuff... maybe.
Justin_Calkins
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
this downgrading of our default 'untrained' optimums is perhaps more representative of changing lifestyles between the 1960s and today - modern electronics have made us less dependent on our own memory skills. Miller's subject's were already primed for chunking longer strings.
Parker didn't conduct a new study but reevaluated Millers data. So today's lifestyle is completely irreverent.
Justin_Calkins
not rated yet Nov 30, 2012
.

We see seven distinct colours
.


??? What is a "Distinct color*" and 7? why...?