“Seven, plus or minus two.” That was the so-called “magical number” introduced in 1956 by Princeton cognitive psychologist Dr. George A. Miller. What Miller proposed, based on extensive research, was that on average people could remember seven things at once. For some of his research colleagues, the magic number was five. Some even concluded the limit was one.
But, what Miller and a growing number of researchers were really investigating was a much bigger question: Why are some people’s brains better suited for success? And their findings seemed to keep pointing to a new concept called “working memory” as a key part of the answer.
Working memory represents the brain’s ability to hold and process the discrete information about what you are doing at the present moment. Here’s one way of looking at it. Imagine you’re watching television and you’ve hit at a commercial break. You quickly compose a mental list of tasks and set off to accomplish everything before your show starts again. Your thought process goes like this: “Go to the refrigerator. Get a drink. Get a snack. Check your email. Hurry back.” But as the word “email” pops into your head, you remember that you need to notify your colleague at work that the next morning’s meeting has been rescheduled. Suddenly, you find yourself staring into the refrigerator thinking, “What am I looking for?”
As this scenario clearly depicts, working memory has limits. If we try to focus on too many things at once or get distracted, information which we were trying to retain can fall off our mental radar. This scenario is precisely what Miller and his colleagues were trying to understand and define. And with good reason – it is one thing to forget why you went to the refrigerator, but the same cognitive processes and abilities at work in this example impact thousands of daily activities of much greater importance.
It is for this reason that the concept of working memory held such great promise for researchers like Miller. For the first time, it offered a logic by which they could understand variations in a person’s ability to process information. It suggested a new layer beyond intelligence by which we could better understand why some succeed when others fail. Most importantly, it gave scientists a way to articulate why people like Chris Tonelli had so much difficulty with certain tasks.
Intense discussion and continued research followed Miller’s initial work. Studies began to show that learning, organizing priorities, managing time, staying focused and handling stress were all dependent on a healthy working memory capacity. New analogies were devised to aptly describe its fundamental importance. Some even called it “the engine of learning” or the brain’s random access memory (RAM). Researchers began to conclude that deficits in working memory may lie at the core of attention problems and learning disabilities, and may explain why some people are prone to choke under pressure.
There was widespread agreement that through working memory, scientists were making important new steps in understanding the workings of the human mind. And then, quickly, the buzz around working memory slowed to a halt.