4 is the 'magic' number
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 psychiatrist challenges this long-held view, suggesting the number might actually be four.
In 1956, American psychologist George Miller published a paper in the influential journal Psychological Review arguing the mind could cope with a maximum of only seven chunks of information.
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 storage capacity 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 memory tasks," he says.
The full discussion paper includes many exemplars of the magic of 'four'.
Source: University of New South Wales
- Evidence for a new nuclear 'magic number'Wed, 9 Oct 2013, 14:36:19 EDT
- Magical thinking helps dieters cope with unrealistic expectationsWed, 15 Jun 2011, 15:37:16 EDT
- Child's 'mental number line' affects memory for numbersThu, 9 Sep 2010, 11:18:38 EDT
- Time and numbers mix together in the brainTue, 19 Jul 2011, 22:34:13 EDT
- Rutgers nuclear physicists study 'magic' nature of tinFri, 6 Aug 2010, 15:29:54 EDT
- Long-held memory tenet challengedfrom UPIWed, 28 Nov 2012, 16:31:13 EST
- Not 7? 4 Is The 'Magic' Number For Memory, Says Psychiatristfrom Scientific BloggingWed, 28 Nov 2012, 11:40:53 EST
- Four is the 'magic' numberfrom Science DailyWed, 28 Nov 2012, 11:32:17 EST
- Four is the magic numberfrom Science BlogWed, 28 Nov 2012, 9:30:30 EST
Latest Science NewsletterGet the latest and most popular science news articles of the week in your Inbox! It's free!
Check out our next project, Biology.Net
From other science news sites
Popular science news articles
- Environment drives genetics in 'Evolution Canyon'; discovery sheds light on climate change
- Noble gas molecule discovered in space
- Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code
- Surprise: Duck-billed dinosaurs had fleshy 'cocks comb'
- With new study, aquatic comb jelly floats into new evolutionary position