Four Is The Magic Number For Our Memory
November 29, 2012

Our Minds Can Only Handle Four Chunks Of Information At A Time

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

For the last 50 years, psychological lore has held seven as a "magic" number when it comes to the number of items of information the mind can cope with before confusion sets in.

A new analysis from the University of New South Wales challenges this long-held view, suggesting the magic might actually be in the number four.

American psychologist George Miller published a paper in 1956 in the influential journal Psychological Review. The paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," argued that the mind could cope with a maximum number of only seven chunks of information at a time. Since publication, the paper has become one of the most highly cited psychology articles. Psychology Review says the paper is the most influential of all time.

UNSW professor Gordon Parker, however, says that his re-analysis of Miller's experiments shows that Miller missed the mark by a wide margin.

Parker says that a closer look at the evidence shows the human mind copes with a maximum of four "chunks" of information at a time, 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.

The success of the original paper, claims Parker, lies less in science and “more in its multilayered title and Miller´s evocative use of the word ℠magic´."

Fifty years post-Miller, Parker says 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 new study has been published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.