Long-held memory tenet challenged

Nov. 28, 2012 at 3:56 PM
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SYDNEY, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- An Australian researcher has challenged a long-held view on how many information nuggets the mind can cope with before confusion sets in.

In 1956, American psychologist George Miller published a paper 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 influential and highly cited articles in the field of psychology.

But Gordon Parker, a psychiatry professor at the University of New South Wales, says a re-analysis of the experiments used by Miller suggest the findings were wide of the mark.

A closer examination of the evidence shows the human mind copes with a maximum of four "pieces" of information, not seven, Parker said

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

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

"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," he said.

"Regardless, the consensus now is that humans can [at] best store only four chunks in short-term memory tasks."

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