The Irrepressible Number "7"

"All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, conpulsion, habit, reason, passion and desire." --Aristotle (384 b.c - 322 b.c.)


The Classical 7-Circuit Labyrinth
The Classical 7-Circuit Labyrinth

A few years ago, when I was editing Family Circle Magazine, we decided to publish a classic cookbook.  The magazine was well-known for its triple-tested recipes, but had never taken that giant step into the world of trade book publishing to compete with the hundreds of other cookbooks on the shelves: books by Julia Child, Better Homes and Gardens, Gourmet Magazine, and others.  Many of these “food bibles” offered 1,000 recipes or more.  But as I sifted through the data and delved into the research, I learned something even more interesting.  People who purchased these cookbooks used, on average, about 7 out of the 1,000 recipes available.  Why so few? 


I talked to a few friends and associates about this seeming anomaly and became even more intrigued when one said, “Doesn’t surprise me.  I have a closet stuffed with clothes, yet I always seem to wear the same 7 outfits each week.”  One man told me that he couldn’t deal with the choices at the coffee shop near his office, so he ordered the daily special, regardless of what was offered.





George Miller, a Harvard University psychology professor in the 1950’s was also intrigued with the number 7.  While his colleague, B.F. Skinner, was working on advances in behavioral psychology, Miller focused on cognitive science. He published his landmark study, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” in The Psychological Review in 1956.  He opens with this thought, “My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.  For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals.”


Miller completed a series of measurements, experiments and data analysis and showed the limits of the human mind to remember large amounts of information.  He established that the average person can hold up to 7 numbers, words or visual objects in short-term or working memory.  (Some say that telephone numbers were limited to 7 because of this finding.)




Seven is a natural brain filter, managing information and visual stimuli in order to let the brain and memory function properly.  What Miller couldn’t anticipate was the overwhelming amount of information and electronic stimulation that would result from computing and the Internet.  But that overload is rewiring our brains and causing us to flit from reading an email, to listening to our i-Pods, to making a cell phone call, to reading a tweet, to watching a video.  It’s mental hopscotching and young and old are now both victims of memory impairment.