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Scientist Claims 'Four' is the 'Magic' Number for Brain to Cope with Information

Update Date: Nov 29, 2012 06:43 AM EST

It has long been believed that the human mind can cope with up to seven chunks of information before getting confused, thanks to a research published in 1956 by American psychologist George Miller. Miller called it the "magic" number. He argued in his paper published in the influential journal Psychological Review that seven was the maximum number of chunks of information a human can store in his brain, before confusion sets in.

However, a new study by a leading Australian psychiatrist challenges this long-held view, suggesting the number might actually be four, Medical Xpress reports.

The paper, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information", has long been accepted as one of the highly cited psychology articles and also as the most influential paper of all time in Psychological Review.

The new study by UNSW professor of psychiatry Gordon Parker, however, claims that a re-analysis of the experiment has revealed that Miller missed out the actual number by a wide mark.

According to professor Parker, the actual number of information that the human mind can cope with is four, and 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.

Parker further said that the success of Miller's paper was "more in its multilayered title and Miller's evocative use of the word 'magic'," than in the science.

According to Parker, even after 50 years of the claims made by Miller in his paper, it is still unclear as to how much the capacity of the brain is, in terms of information storage.

"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.

The article was published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Scientia.

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