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.
People who suffer from mental health issues also suffer from its stigma. Portraying mental illness as a good thing helps no one
The inventor of a breakthrough DNA test for Down syndrome says the technology can be used to screen people for cancer.The Hong Kong scientist who invented a simple blood test to show pregnant women if their babies have Down syndrome is now testing a similar technology for cancer.
Dr Jeremy Farrar of Wellcome Trust says international community is belatedly taking actions necessary to stem tide of disease
Miniature stomachs gastric organoids will help in study of ulcers and could be used in future to repair patients stomachs
The story of the vaccines development is just one part of a rich and intertwined history of scientific discovery and controversy
A highly sensitive blood test for Ebola exists, so why isn't it being used to test all returning health workers from West Africa? Because the virus isn't in the blood in the first stages of infection.
Drinking beverages enriched with compounds found in cocoa beans improved older adults' performances on a memory test – but there's a catch
A 700-year-old caribou dropping from northern Canada holds surprisingly well-preserved viruses. There's no evidence the viruses are dangerous, but they are scientifically interesting.
The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial against quarantining people who have worked with Ebola patients in Africa. Renee Montagne speaks with Dr. Lindsey Baden, one of the authors.
Surgeons in Australia say they have performed the first heart transplant using a "dead heart".