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 professor of psychiatry 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 professor of psychiatry Gordon Parker, from the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia, 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.
University of New South Wales: http://www.unsw.edu.au
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
There's a new contender in the century-old quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness: allulose. It's sugar — but in a form that our bodies don't convert into calories. Perfect? Not quite.
Researchers say findings may have important public health implications as vitamin supplements are relatively safe and cost-effective
Sarcoptic mange can leave southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed wombats blind and deaf before eventually killing them
Annual vaccinations could be a thing of the past as scientists have successfully tested vaccines on animals infected with different strains of influenza
Remember winter, when everything was cold and grey? Right now, when all around is lush and green, the contrast couldn’t be greater. But is everything really as it seems? New research shows that we see things differently in winter compared with summer.
We now know how to turn fat cells into ones that burn calories as heat rather than store them – raising the prospect of a gene therapy for obesity
A growing body of research suggests that doctors' racial biases and other prejudices continue to affect the care patients received. Medical educators say self-awareness is an important first step.
A new study renews questions about how aggressively doctors should treat a very early form of breast cancer or pre-cancer.
Addyi gains US marketing licence after third attempt, but questions remain about its effectiveness, potential side-effects and the true need for the drug
Increasingly taken by healthy people to improve focus before exams, after a comprehensive review researchers say modafinil is safe in the short-term