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.
Analysis of millions of audio files has led one US company to claim that their software can predict how a person’s voice will make a listener feel
Bird flu outbreak now spreading through Midwest poultry could head east with fall migration
A little MRI video seems to settle the decades-old debate about that loud pop of the joints: It's all about bubbles. But imagine an air bag inflating, not the bursting of a balloon.
People who took acetaminophen responded less strongly to happy or sad photos in a small study. It's one of several studies suggesting that there's an overlap with pain and other feelings.
Teachers can become frustrated when students don't seem to try hard when it comes to schoolwork. There's a surprising explanation of why some students might not be putting their best effort forward.
Stress from serious events in first 14 years of life may be risk factor and one trigger for disease, finds Swedish study of 10,000 families
Legislators advance bill to tighten immunisation laws in the face of protest from small band of activists who believe parents should be allowed to opt out
To understand the appeal of extremist ideologies we need to look beyond the usual explanations, says a professor of epidemiology
It's not for the faint hearted but it works in mice. When enough hair is plucked out, an immune signal sent to nearby hair follicles triggers extra hair to grow back
A strange mix of living well and taking risks adds one more puzzle to the narcissistic personality