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The Magic Number 7
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As an undergraduate, my psychology tutor dryly commented to me that the best way to get a paper widely read was to give it a memorable title, like “the magic number 7, plus or minus 2”.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97.

Here is the abstract, in full:

A variety of researches are examined from the standpoint of information theory. It is shown that the unaided observer is severely limited in terms of the amount of information he can receive, process, and remember. However, it is shown that by the use of various techniques, e.g., use of several stimulus dimensions, recoding, and various mnemonic devices, this informational bottleneck can be broken. 20 references.

Out of respect for George Miller, this post will be equally brief. His paper became a classic because it showed that we perceive the world through an attentional bottleneck, one which we would like to expand, but which has not proved possible despite every training effort over the last 63 years, other than for a few heroic individuals who practiced digit span hard for months, and then find their abilities did not generalize to other memory tasks. Like in a funnel, the many possible inputs of experience must slowly swirl down a narrow spout into the waiting brain. A grievous restriction.

All is not lost, because we can cope with our restricted scope by learning how to “chunk” data into other more meaningful units. So, although we are cabined, cribbed, confined in actuality, we have found heuristics to cope with our limitations. Despite that, people still yearn to achieve even more if they could increase their span just a little.

The much-vaunted Flynn effect has done nothing for digit span, although it may have increased the easy “digits forwards” performance just a fraction, at the cost of reducing the harder and more predictive “digits backwards” performance by a similar fraction, resulting in no change overall.

How do other species fare in this regard? In a very brief review, Manoochehri (2019) lays out the basic picture and wonders how memory span evolved.

The evolution of memory span: a review of the existing evidence. Majid Manoochehri

The existing evidence shows that chimpanzees have a memory span of about 5 items (Inoue &Matsuzawa, 2007; Kawai & Matsuzawa, 2000).

Lately, Toyoshima et al. (2018) have stipulated that rats are able to remember 5 objects at once.

Baboons reveal a memory span of about 4 to 5 items (Fagot & DeLillo, 2011).

Herman etal. (2013) have suggested a memory span of about 4 to 5 items for bottlenose dolphins.

The results of studying two rhesus monkeys Swartz et al. (1991) suggest a memory span of about 4 objects.

Similar work by Sugita et al. (2015) has argued that rats’ memory span is approximately 4 items.

Terrace (1993) has found it takes a pigeon 3-4 months to learn a 4-item list, which suggests that 4 is a pigeon’s memory span.

More studies of more animals would be needed to show if the jump from 4-5 items up to the human 7 items is the massive discontinuity it appears to be. Did we pick up a mutation 60 to 130 thousand years ago which gave us the bandwidth to use grammatical computations, greater articulatory rehearsal, leading to automatic long-term storage, and the beginnings of introspection, self-reflection, consciousness and symbolic thought? It might even have given us the ability to create and enjoy music, a language-like spin off from newly acquired processing skills.

• Category: Science • Tags: Animal IQ 
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  1. This reminds me of the rule that only the brightest people could remember as many as 9 items at a time, the ordinary human managing three. It was illustrated by a Punch cartoon showing two Cambridge Dons walking across the grass of a college quadrangle. The one was turning to the other and saying “and ninthly!”. It’s old joke.

    At Oxford, attended by Boris Johnson, they allegedly stop at 6. PPE graduates who join the Civil Service get sent to do a Masters in Economics. Cambridge Economics graduates start straight away.

    • LOL: atlantis_dweller
    • Replies: @Mr McKenna
    , @Hypnotoad666
  2. Cortes says:

    The seventh seal is the killer…

    • Replies: @95Theses
    , @anon
  3. Nothing warms Chinese grandparents’ hearts like hearing the little ones recite from memory the San Zi Jing, the Three Character Classic–China’s equivalent of Fun with Dick and Jane:

    Watch and weep at this performance:

    Or learn it yourself, right here:


    Men at their birth are naturally good.
    Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different.
    If foolishly there is no teaching, the nature will deteriorate.
    The right way in teaching is to attach the utmost importance to thoroughness.
    Of old, the mother of Mencius chose a neighborhood;
    and when her child would not learn, she broke the shuttle from the loom.
    Tou of the Swallow Hills had the right method.
    He taught five sons, each of whom raised the family reputation.
    To feed without teaching is the father’s fault.
    To teach without severity is the teacher’s laziness.
    If the child does not learn, this is not as it should be.
    If he does not learn while young, what will he be when old?
    If jade is not polished, it cannot become a thing of use.
    If a man does not learn, he cannot know his duty towards his neighbor.
    He who is the son of a man, when he is young
    should attach himself to his teachers and friends, and practice ceremonial usages.
    HAsiang, at nine years of age, would warm his parents’ bed.
    Filial piety towards parents, is that to which we should hold fast.
    Jung, at four years of age, could yield the bigger pears.
    To behave as a younger brother towards elders is one of the first things to know.
    Begin with filial piety and fraternal love, then see and hear .
    Learn to count, and learn to read.
    Units and tens, then tens and hundreds,
    hundreds and thousands, thousands and tens of thousands.
    The Three Forces are Heaven, Earth, and Man.
    The Three Luminaries are the sun, the moon and the stars.
    The Three Bonds are the obligation between sovereign and subject,
    the love between father and child and the harmony between husband and wife.
    We speak of spring and summer, we speak of autumn and winter.
    These four seasons revolve without ceasing.
    We speak of north and south, we speak of east and west.
    These four points respond to the requirements of the centre.
    We speak of water, fire, wood, metal and earth.
    These five elements have their origin in number.
    We speak of charity of heart and of duty towards one’s neighbor, of propriety, of wisdom, and of truth.
    These five virtues admit of no compromise.
    Rice, spiked millet, pulse, wheat, glutinous millet and common millet.
    These six grains are those which men eat.
    The horse, the ox, the sheep, the fowl, the dog, the pig.
    These six animals are those which men keep.
    Especially of the ox and dog is the merit most conspicuous;
    one can plough the fields, the other can guard the house.
    It is to obscure your natural goodness of disposition, to kill them and expose them for sale.
    Beware of eating them, and so avoid being punished.
    We speak of joy, of anger, we speak of pity, of fear,
    of love, of hate, and of desire. These are the seven passions.
    The gourd, earthenware, skin, wood, stone, metal,
    silk, and bamboo,
    yield the eight musical sounds.
    Great great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather, father and self,
    self and son, son and grandson,
    from son and grandson, on to great grandson and great great grandson.
    These are the nine agnates, constituting the kinships of man.
    Affection between father and child, harmony between husband and wife,
    friendliness on the part of elder brothers, respectfulness on the part of younger brothers,
    precedence between elders and youngsters, as between friend and friend,
    respect on the part of the sovereign, loyalty on the part of the subject.
    These ten obligations are common to all men.
    In the education of the young, there should be explanation and elucidation,
    careful teaching of the interpretations of commentators, and due attention to paragraphs and sentences.
    Those who are learners must have a beginning.
    The ”Little Learning” finished, they proceed to the ”Four Books.”
    There is the Lun Yü, in twenty sections.
    In this, the various disciples have recorded the wise sayings of Confucius.
    The works of Mencius are comprised in seven sections.
    These explain the W Y and the exemplification thereof, and expound charity and duty towards one’s neighbor.
    The ”Chung Yung” was written by the pen of Tzu-ssu;
    ”Chung” (the middle) being that which does not lean towards any side, ”Yung” (the course) being that which cannot be changed.
    He who wrote ”The Great Learning” was the philosopher Tsêng.
    Beginning with cultivation of the individual and ordering of the family, it goes on to government of one’s own State and tranquilization of the Empire.
    When the ”Classic of Filial Piety” is mastered, and the ”Four Books” are known by heart.
    The next step is to the ”Six Classics”, which may now be studied.
    The ”Books of Poetry”, of ”History” and of ”Changes”, the ”Rites of the Chou Dynasty”, the ”Book of Rites”, and the ”Spring and Autumn Annals”,
    are called the Six Classics, which should be carefully explained and analyzed.
    There is the ”Lien shan” system, there is the ”Kuei tsang”,
    and there is the system of Changes of the Chou Dynasty; such are the three systems which elucidate the Changes.
    There are the Regulations, the Counsels, the Instructions, the Announcements,
    the Oaths, the Charges; these are the profundities of the Book of History.
    Our Duke of Chou drew up the Ritual of the Chou Dynasty,
    in which he set forth the duties of the six classes of officials, and thus gave a settled form to the government.
    The Elder and the Younger Tai wrote commentaries on the Book of Rites.
    They published the holy words, and Ceremonies and Music were set in order.
    We speak of the ”Kuo feng”, we speak of the ”Ya” and of the ”Sung.”
    These are the four sections of the Book of Poetry, which should be hummed over and over.
    When odes ceased to be made, the ”Spring and Autumn Annals” were produced.
    These ”Annals” contain praise and blame, and distinguish the good from the bad.
    The three commentaries upon the above, include that of Kung-Yang,
    that of Tso, and that of Ku-Liang.
    When the classics are understood, then the writings of the various philosophers should be read.
    Pick out the important points in each, and take a note of all facts.
    The five chief philosophers are Hsün, Yang,
    Wên Chung Tzu, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.
    When the Classics and the Philosophers are mastered, the various histories should then be read,
    and the genealogical connections should be examined, so that the end of one dynasty and the beginning of the next may be known.
    From Fu Hsi and Shên Nung on to the Yellow emperor,
    these are called the Three Rulers, who lived in the early ages.
    T’ang and Yu-Yü are called the Two emperors.
    They abdicated, one after the other, and theirs was called the Golden ge.
    The Hsia dynasty had Yü; and the Shang dynasty had T’ang;
    the Chou dynasty had Wên and Wu; these are called the Three Kings.
    Under the Hsia dynasty the throne was transmitted from father to son, making a family possession of the empire.
    After four hundred years, the Imperial sacrifice passed from the House of Hsia.
    T’ang the completer destroyed the Hsia Dynasty and the dynastic title became Shang.
    The line lasted for six hundred years, ending with Chou Hsin.
    King Wu of the Chou Dynasty finally slew Chou Hsin.
    His own line lasted for eight hundred years; the longest dynasty of all.
    When the Chous made tracks eastwards, the feudal bond was slackened;
    the arbitrament of spear and shields prevailed; and peripatetic politicians were held in high esteem.
    This period began with the Spring and Autumn Epoch, and ended with that of the Warring States.
    Next, the Five Chieftains domineered, and the Seven Martial States came to the front.
    Then the House of Ch’in, descended from the Ying clan, finally united all the States under one sway.
    The throne was transmitted to Erh Shih, upon which followed the struggle between the Ch’u and the Han States.
    Then Kao Tsu arose, and the House of Han was established.
    When we come to the reign of Hsiao P’ing, Wang Mang usurped the throne.
    Then Kuang Wu arose, and founded the Eastern Han Dynasty.
    It lasted four hundred years, and ended with the emperor Hsien.
    Wei, Shu, and Wu, fought for the sovereignty of the Hans.
    They were called the Three Kingdoms, and existed until the Two Chin Dynasties.
    Then followed the Sung and the Ch’i dynasties, and after them the Liang and Ch’ên dynasties
    These are the southern dynasties, with their capital at Nanking.
    The northern dynasties are the Wei dynasty of the Yüan family, which split into Eastern and Western Wei,
    the Chou dynasty of the Yü-wen family, with the Ch’i dynasty of the Kao family.
    t length, under the Sui dynasty, the empire was united under one ruler.
    The throne was not transmitted twice, succession to power being lost.
    The first emperor of the T’ang dynasty raised volunteer troops.
    He put an end to the disorder of the House of Sui, and established the foundations of his line.
    Twenty times the throne was transmitted in a period of three hundred years.
    The Liang State destroyed it, and the dynastic title was changed.
    The Liang, the T’ang, the Chin, the Han, and the Chou,
    are called the Five Dynasties, and there was a reason for the establishment of each.
    Then the fire-led House of Sung arose, and received the resignation of the house of Chou.
    Eighteen times the throne was transmitted, and then the North and the South were reunited.
    Under the Liao and the Chin dynasties, there was confusion of Imperial titles;
    when the Liao dynasty was destroyed, the Sung dynasty still remained.
    When the Yüan dynasty arose, the line of the Chin Tartars came to an end,
    and the House of Sung was destroyed together with it.
    It united the Middle Kingdom, and attached to the empire the tribes of the north and west.
    The founder of the Ming dynasty was for a long time engaged in warfare.
    He transmitted the throne to Chien Wên only four years,
    when the capital was transferred to Peking, and Yung Lo succeeded the latter.
    At length Ch’ung Chêng died on the Coal Hill.
    The Liao Tartars and the Chin Tartars all took the Imperial title.
    The Yüans (Mongols) destroyed the Chin Tartars, and put an end to the House of Sung.
    They governed the Middle Kingdom, and also the wild tribes of the north and west;
    after ninety years their mandate was exhausted.
    Then T’ai Tsu arose, his dynasty being known as Ta Ming.
    He took as his year-title Hung Wu, and fixed his capital at Chin-ling (Nanking).
    At length, under the emperor Ch’êng Tsu, a move was made to Swallow City (Peking).
    There were seventeen reigns in all, down to and including Ch’ung Chêng.
    The hold on the people was relaxed, and rebels sprang up thick as forests.
    Then came Li Ch’uang, and the Imperial regalia were destroyed.
    The founder of the Ch’ing or Pure dynasty responded to the glorious summons;
    he tranquilized the four quarters (N,S,E,W), and achieved the final settlement of the empire.
    The Twenty-two Dynastic Histories are all embraced in the above.
    They contain examples of good and bad government, whence may be learnt the principles of prosperity and decay.
    Ye who read history must study the State Annals,
    whereby you will understand ancient and modern events, as though having seen them with your own eyes.
    Recite them with the mouth, and ponder over them in your hearts.
    Do this in the morning; do this in the evening.
    Of old, Confucius took Hasiang T’o for his teacher.
    The inspired men and sages of old studied diligently nevertheless.
    Chao, President of the Council, studied the Lu text of the ”Lun Yü.”
    He, when already an official, studied, and moreover with diligence.
    One opened out rushes and plaited them together; another scraped tablets of bamboo.
    These men had no books, but they knew how to make an effort.
    One tied his head to the beam above him; another pricked his thigh with an awl.
    They were not taught, but toiled hard of their own accord.
    Then we have one who put fireflies in a bag, and again another who used the white glare from snow.
    Although their families were poor, these men studied unceasingly.
    Again, there was one who carried fuel, and another who used horns as pegs.
    Although they toiled with their bodies, they were nevertheless remarkable for their application.
    Su Lao-ch’üan, at the age of twenty-seven,
    at last began to show his energy and devote himself to the study of books.
    Then, when already past the age, he deeply regretted his delay.
    You little boys should take thought betimes.
    Then there was Liang Hao, who at the age of eighty-two,
    made his replies in the great hall, and came out first among many scholars.
    When thus late he had succeeded, all men pronounced him a prodigy.
    You little boys should make up your minds to work.
    Jung at eight years of age, could compose poetry.
    Pi, at seven years of age, could make an epigram on ”wei-ch’i.”
    These youths were quick of apprehension, and people declared them to be prodigies.
    You young learners ought to imitate them.
    Ts’ai Wên-chi was able to judge from the sound of a psaltery.
    Hsieh Tao-yün was able to compose verses.
    They were only girls, yet they were quick and clever.
    You boys ought to rouse yourselves.
    Liu Yen of the T’ang dynasty, when only seven years of age,
    was ranked as an ”inspired child”, and was appointed a Corrector of Texts.
    He, although a child, was already in an official post.
    You young learners strive to bring about a like result.
    Those who work will also succeed as he did.
    The dog keeps guard by night; the cock proclaims the dawn.
    If foolishly you do not study, how can you become men?
    The silkworm produces silk, the bee makes honey.
    If man does not learn, he is not equal to the brutes.
    Learn while young, and when grown up apply what you have learnt;
    influencing the sovereign above; benefiting the people below.
    Make a name for yourselves, and glorify your father and mother,
    shed lustre on your ancestors, enrich your posterity.
    Men bequeath to their children coffers of gold;
    But I teach you children only this book.
    Diligence has its reward; play has no advantages,
    Oh, be on your guard and put forth all your strength.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  4. @Philip Owen

    Extrapolating just a bit, this helps to explain why most people can’t be bothered by things like the existence of eight billion people on the planet, or the influx of a hundred million to their country. Hardly anyone can meaningfully conceive of such numbers.

    Try to picture a million people, then try to picture a billion. How different do they look, given that one is a thousand times the other? Frankly it’s beyond our ken.

    And speaking of Boris Johnson, from today’s Daily Mail:

    REVEALED: The NY socialist at the heart of a scandal that could stop Trump’s favorite becoming British PM: American who reported Boris Johnson’s late night fight is the daughter of Broadway legend Mitch Leigh who wrote ‘The Impossible Dream’

    Probably unnecessary to add, the real name of “Broadway legend Mitch Leigh” was Irwin Michnick.

    • Replies: @Blue Corgi
  5. would have been interesting had you kept pseudoscience of evolution out of it. this is the main reason the world is unraveling.

    7 is a perfect number for Hebrews and is found everywhere: seven days, seven continents, oceans, heavens, gifts of grace, seals of prophecy, etc. 8 is also very special: octaves…

    dear intellectuals and learned men, please stop deceiving the masses with pseudoscience and at least have the humility of admitting your ignorance.

    • Replies: @95Theses
    , @anon
  6. @Godfree Roberts

    Impressive child, noble text, but in the end the crushing effect of duty obliterates all rebellion.

  7. @Mr McKenna

    A quintessentially jewish thing to do (by that “Buddhist” heart LOL)

  8. @Philip Owen

    This reminds me of the rule that only the brightest people could remember as many as 9 items at a time, the ordinary human managing three.

    And sometimes three is a bit much.

  9. 95Theses says:

    One of my favorite films. That stunning blonde is mute throughout the entire film until she breaks her silence with, “It is finished!”.

    The music isn’t all that memorable, honestly, and since I don’t need to “hear” subtitles, I play classical music while the DVD soundtrack is muted.

    Beginning with the opening scene, right when the sun pierces through the clouds, Vaughan Williams’ Intrada is indexed to play. So much more appropriate than the actual film score. JMO.

  10. 95Theses says:
    @anno nimus

    Agreed. Though I’m perfectly willing to coexist with anyone who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with me on all things theological.

    Incidentally, have you yet to see James M. Tour’s lectures? That guy is devastating!

    • Replies: @anon
  11. should do a comparative biology study where we calculate ratios for total brain volume, specific relevant brain area volume, and body size, to item memory span. we’ll probably find a decreasing ratio there, as brains get twice as big but you only get 50% more item memory span.

    also do the obvious comparison between humans along the standardized intelligence test spectrum. dumb humans are probably less than 7, the smartest humans up to 10. which brings up a conundrum. the difference between an animal with an item span of 4 or 5, versus the average human, with a span of 7, is just as big as the difference between an average human and a really smart human. about 3 items. but a really smart human’s brain is not twice as big as an average human’s brain. it’s bigger, but not nearly by as much. so what’s so important, what’s the difference, in a really smart human’s brain?

    can we infer that really smart humans are about as much smarter than average humans, as average humans are as much smarter than primates?

    would be interesting though if this capability did not degrade much even in dumb humans. that is, maybe 6 or 7 remains about what even dumb adults can do, revealing that this is probably an important working number for humans to be able to juggle mentally. in the same way really dumb human groups around the world can still have good hand-eye coordination and so on. that’s less dependent on g.

  12. is there any research into brain damage and brain injury where people suddenly have a lot less item memory span? someplace in the brain where if you take a direct head in the head, all the victims immediately can’t remember 7 things anymore but now they’re down to 3 or 4?

    then compare that area between normal healthy adults and so if there’s any correlation between MRI there and paper and pencil test ability.

  13. anon[329] • Disclaimer says:
    @anno nimus

    Creationist fanatics repeat the same garbage over and over, and their claims are indexed and listed on the Index to Creationist Claims. Who want’s to play creationist bingo?

  14. anon[329] • Disclaimer says:

    Tour assume his own ignorance of evolution means that all the experts in the subject are wrong too.

    Tour: I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me?

    Larry Moran (Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto) responds: The short answer is “no.” Just because you don’t understand something is no reason to call yourself a “skeptic” and imply that an entire field of study is wrong.

    A chemist who doesn’t understand evolution

    Keep grasping for straws.

    • Replies: @95Theses
  15. “The short answer is “no.” Just because you don’t understand something is no reason to call yourself a “skeptic” and imply that an entire field of study is wrong.”

    The meaning hear is not a lack of comprehension, but rather a recognition that something about what is advanced doesn’t make sense. One may grasp the analysis but chagrin the conclusions, in fact based on the analysis, one may conclude

    the conclusion itself makes no sense or doesn’t follow —-

    Hence the expression,

    “I got it and I don’t get it.”

    One can fully comprehend a process and be skeptical of the conclusions, the methodology . . . etc.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  16. Bemildred says:

    Short term memory is expensive, like registers in a CPU. Your little 3 lb. brain uses around 1/4 of your blood supply, and God help you if your oxgen is cut off for more than a couple minutes. Evolution will only give you as much as is useful wherever you happen to be evolving, it is not seeeking to create God-humans. We’ll have to do that ourselves, but be careful what you wish for, many people have pursued such fantasies.

    Then there are bird brains, which appear to be a lot more compact than ours, and that our brains are mostly fat. It’s not just how big it is, but how it is organized and “educated”, intelligence is accrued as well as innate, like so much that is really useful, all brains need to be “trained” or “programmed”, they don’t come ready to go. And the bigger it gets, the more complicated it gets, and less reliable, and the more you have to invest in training to get the benefit of the higher smarts. Then, when a leopard appears in your path, what you need is not to think it over. Being dumb can be good in dumb circumstances.

    It’s a very messy subject.

    • Replies: @anon
    , @Anon
  17. Anonymous[252] • Disclaimer says:

    > One can fully comprehend a process

    Or not. Tour states, “I am not qualified to enter the public discussion on evolution vs. creation.” Weasel out of that, EliteCon.

  18. anon[252] • Disclaimer says:

    Intelligence is a scheming tool to grab more stuff…

    “The function is survival by any mechanism any means possible, whatever can happen can happen, no umpires no rules, just a blood sport; and for nothing, nothing in the end, just a raised hand ‘I win, you die.’ And it’s a crude and stupid game. Our intelligence only exists because it was a scheming tool, because it made us better at stealing star energy from other organisms. That’s the only reason why it exists. And it still remains its only function. To be used as a scheming tool to derive gratification or satisfaction of our selfish individual desires.” -Gary Inmendham

    Gladiator War (Graphic Content)

  19. Anon[714] • Disclaimer says:

    a leopard is unlikely to appear in your path, as they are predominately ambush and stalking hunters, and night predators. They know that if the prey sees them, the game is lost.

  20. Noman says:

    Why basic phone numbers have 7 alphanumerics, now all numerics.
    Adding area codes has increased from the 7+2 to 10 digits held in memory.

  21. 95Theses says:

    Who’s grasping? Anything on this topic I may submit isn’t for the sake of argument. I find it interesting because it is consonant with my experience – something you couldn’t even begin to touch.

    That said, you’re convinced not to be convinced. I don’t care. Do what you must; think what you like. But grasping for straws? Ha! That’s a hoot!

  22. The author tells me he is updating his paper, so I will let you know when the new version is available.

    • Replies: @Commentator Mike
  23. This should have been published on April 1st.

    And how do birds navigate their migrations with a memory span of so few items?

    And a Shakespearean actor has a memory span of how many items, considering each word is a separate item? Or someone who has memorised the entire Koran and can recite it off by heart ? Or someone who has mastered several languages? Or those who memorise train timetables and the London telephone directory? In fact someone with a memory span of 7 items would be useless at doing anything at all and would just be vegetable fit only to survive on a drip.

  24. anon[139] • Disclaimer says:

    Bibi Andersson, the wife, passed away recently, I think. A true beauty.

  25. @Commentator Mike

    And before someone replies that I don’t really understand the intricacies of this particular science. Like that maybe one memory item isn’t really just one item but maybe several, or even thousands or millions of different items. So maybe an autist who can remember 7 metropolitan telephone directories, or maybe 5 or 9 such directories, is actually that normal average person in this scheme of things. Some science this. But to tell the truth I’m not that gifted; I can’t even remember all the different genders that exist, and they’re still less than a hundred. Oh but I’m not sure I ever bothered to actually learn them, though I might have casually scanned the current, or not so current list, sometime.

    But the current teacher, or some commenter on Facebook or Twitter, better have a memory span of more than just 7 genders, if they want to keep their job or avoid trouble with the law, or at least not get censured by the controllers of the social media networks. Now why doesn’t the author of this article complain to Zuck and his gang, and those gender academics, and the judges, that they should abolish all those gender lists and just stick to two or three genders, as it is scientifically impossible for anybody to memorise more than 7 (or at the most 9) items? But then they’d probably reply that all should keep a gender list handy, sort of like a shopping list, if they have problems with their memory.

  26. dearieme says:

    But the current teacher … better have a memory span of more than just 7 genders, if they want to keep their job or avoid trouble with the law

    Today’s winner.

  27. @Commentator Mike

    Chunking: that was Miller’s answer. That is how musicians get to learn entire concertos, and actors very wordy scripts, though both take intelligence and practice. Also, reciting entire Koran, parts of the Bible, and long poems.
    Route finding in birds is an interesting point: magnetic fields have been suggested, also polarized light, but navigation and place learning probably rely on a different version of chunking. An interesting problem, and certainly possible exception to central processing limitations.

    • Replies: @Kratoklastes
  28. @James Thompson

    The author tells me he is updating his paper, so I will let you know when the new version is available.

    I suppose you’re referring to Majid not Miller, seeing Miller published that paper 63 years ago?

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  29. @Commentator Mike

    As you surmise, Majid is more likely. He has dug up some more stuff, he says, so we shall see if it changes the picture somewhat.

  30. Nitpicker says:

    Wait, chunking is the answer for keeping more than 7 things in working memory, right?
    The magical number 7 only applies to working memory, no?

    Memorizing concertos and plays is not about chunking, it’s about repetition until it get stored in long-term memory, surely?

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  31. @Nitpicker

    Chunking is a way of getting over the limitations of short term memory, but you have to put in lots of practice to learn your chunks, (as well as being taught some methods). Then, as you say, the chunks get learned, which also takes time, and then you can remember, or at least easily be prompted to recall, much longer sequences of meaningful data.

    Some old examples.

  32. @James Thompson

    Miller’s “answer” was, and remains, a very good example of the ‘charlatan’s squirm’ – that thing that bullshit-artists do when confronted with screamingly-obvious everyday examples that blast their hypothesis to shreds.

    Psychosophaster: “Research shows* that people can’t generally memorise more than 7 things unless they’re sooooper smart”

    Noticer: “How many lines are there in a sonnet, chucklehead?”

    Psychosophaster: “Chunking”.

    * “Research shows” is one of those tropes used by bullshitters to try to pre-empt counter-argument. It is the pseudoscience equivalent of “Up to X% off” (the actual discount will be between -&inf; and X), with a modal interval [0, X/3].

    When the “up to X% off” bullshit has been challenged, the defence is: Puffery.

  33. “Research shows* that people can’t generally memorise more than 7 things unless they’re sooooper smart”

    Let’s see now. I feel like my memory was never that good and it’s failing, but in my youth I could indeed memorise pages and pages of many different poems that I have completely forgotten, and I have forgotten so much more of what I once learned that I don’t need or use any more. But I still know thousands of words in several languages and learn new ones every day so I guess I’m well above what research shows.

    Interestingly, since the advent of the spell-checkers in computer programmes, I’ll have to say that my spelling has deteriorated and if I were to write by hand I’d make more mistakes than I used to. And since computers default to US spelling I sometimes get confused and question if my own English spelling of certain words is correct and have to check. Also I don’t bother memorising as much as I gather I’ve got all the world’s encyclopedias, atlases, and all information in my pocket phone so why bother taxing my brain with it all.

    But the concept of “photographic memory” intrigues me. Why can’t I and everyone have it? That’s one gift I could do with.

  34. Logan says:

    Recently attended a concert that included a performance of a piano sonata that lasted about half an hour.

    For some reason, I had assumed the pianist would have sheet music to work from, although a moment’s thought would have showed how impractical this would be.

    The complexity of the composition was amazing. Leaving aside the skill needed to produce the sounds, the memory feat was astonishing to me, though everybody else seemed to take it for granted.

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