The Magical Number Seven
May 10, 2006 11:37 AM   Subscribe

The Magical Number Seven Psychologist George A. Miller on the human limits for processing and remembering data. It is a little dramatic to watch a person memorize 40 binary digits in a row without error.
posted by Lanark (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it'd be a little more dramatic to watch a person's brain via MRI memorize 40 binary digits in a row without an error.

Has any moderm research (ie, something that wasn't published in 1956) investigated this?
posted by rand at 12:02 PM on May 10, 2006

Wow, that's what I call a newsworthy post, it's been only fifty years since this article was published! I bet there hasn't been any follow-up in the meantime which would be useful to include, for example, debunking the magical number seven. I also can't possibly understand what you're trying to achieve with the second sentence.
posted by Zombie Dreams at 12:02 PM on May 10, 2006

The Magical Number Three
posted by everichon at 12:20 PM on May 10, 2006

So, our brain only has around 2.5 bits to dedicate to any one dimensional observation? Wow... my computer has 64.....
posted by MythMaker at 12:29 PM on May 10, 2006

Lucky Seven Sampson, that's my natural-born name
If you should ask me again, I'd have to tell you the same
You'll wake up tomorrow, you'll be glad that I came

posted by wendell at 12:46 PM on May 10, 2006

I'm with Zombie Dreams... but I'm too lazy to provide links to all the fascinating studies of human cognition that've gone on since then. I'll settle for linking to a debunking of the mis-application of the 7 +-2 rule.
posted by anthill at 1:04 PM on May 10, 2006

The Seven

They are 7 in number, just 7
In the terrible depths they are 7
Bow down, in the sky they are 7

In the terrible depths, the dark houses
They swell, they grow tall
They are neither female or male
They are a silence heavy with seastorms
They bear off no women their loins are empty of children
They are strangers to pity, compassion is far from them
They are deaf to men’s prayers, entreaties can’t reach them
They are horses that grow to great size, that feed on mountains
They are the enemies of our friends
They feed on the gods
They tear up the highways they spread out over the roads
They are the faces of evil they are the faces of evil

They are 7 they are 7 they are 7 times 7
In the name of Heaven let them be torn from our sight
In the name of the Earth let them be torn from our sight

(trans. Jerome K. Rothenberg)
posted by pracowity at 1:05 PM on May 10, 2006

Hehe. "7 comments total".

Although I've now destroyed that coincidence by observing it.
posted by bbuda at 1:24 PM on May 10, 2006

It's okay bbuda we're allowed +/- 2 anyhoo. Interesting article, I understand this is now in the realms of psychology 101 but I hadn't come across the application of information theory in psychology before. Good stuff!
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:40 PM on May 10, 2006

comp.human-factors has some further discussion of Miller's paper. It is often misinterpreted or misunderstood. I don't think it's been 'debunked' but then I'm not a psychologist.
posted by Lanark at 2:20 PM on May 10, 2006

The Magical Number Four. I'm sure you remember this guy?

Mathematicians apparently have a history of going insane from fixating on one number -- seeing it occur everywhere, thinking that it can't be coincidence. I didn't RTFA, but I'm sure someone could make a story of an amazing set of circumstances that suggests an overwhelming pattern behind the universe for just about any number.
posted by Riovanes at 2:46 PM on May 10, 2006

AFAIK it's not so much a case of debunking, as it is a case of a whole lotta people completely misapplying the results of his experiments.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:52 PM on May 10, 2006

five fresh fish: it's both. The term debunking is too harsh if you apply it to his complete theory, but the number has been adjusted a few times by new experiments, and things have been added and refined.
This could have been a fun post if Lanark had taken the time to summarize the more recent insights, had mentioned the fact that the theory is often misused, and added some other flavor. This is just bad copy pasting.
posted by Zombie Dreams at 3:07 PM on May 10, 2006

'k. The go-arounds I've had on this subject were on the "proper" number of steps to use when documenting product usage. There were any number of silly people who were absolutely adamant that there could not be more than seven steps to any one task. It was absurd.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:43 PM on May 10, 2006

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