Memory Limit

In 1956 Harvard psychologist George Miller pointed out a pattern he’d observed. If a person is trained to respond to a given pitch with a corresponding response, she’ll respond nearly perfectly when up to six pitches are involved, but beyond that her performance declines. Humans seem to have an “information channel capacity” of 2-3 bits of information: We can distinguish among 4-8 alternatives and respond appropriately, but beyond that number we start to founder.

A similar limit appears in studies of memory span. One psychologist read aloud lists of random items at a rate of one per second and then asked subjects to repeat what they’d heard. No matter what items had been read — words, letters, or numbers — people could store a maximum of about seven unrelated items at a time in their immediate memory.

It’s probably only a coincidence that these tasks have similar limits, but it’s still a useful rule of thumb: The number of objects an average person can hold in working memory is about seven.

(George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Psychological Review 63:2 [1956], 81-97.)