So I’ve decided that my Friday posts are going to be fun, more lighthearted posts.
Today, I found this interesting article on LiveScience which discusses the mind’s ability to remember groups of things: facts, figures, names, etc.
The greatest number of items that we can keep in our working memory has been up for question, and a new study, published April 14 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, puts the limit at three or four. The term working memory is a more active form of short-term memory and refers to the information on which we can focus and which we can manage.
While researchers once put this number at seven, scientists now find the more accurate capacity limit is lower when subjects are not allowed to use tricks, like repetition or groupings.
To prevent people from using memory-aids, the researchers used different-colored squares followed by an array of the same squares, without color. Finally, these same subjects were shown a single colored square in one location and asked if the color matched the original square in that position.
This is not to say that these results are true of all persons across the board, of course. While the average person may only be able to hold three or four things in mind at once, some people have achieved amazing feats of working memory; moreover, despite the seeming perimeter on the number of items that a person can remember at once, people can improve their performance with memory exercises. (I also found this tidbit intriguing: Those who test well on working memory exercises also seem to do well at learning, reading comprehension and problem solving.)
So what does this have to do with effective communication? Why, I’m glad you asked. If you know that the average person can only retain this small number of items in their short-term memory before losing it completely or converting it into a retrievable long-term memory, you can adjust your missives, your speeches, your reports, your emails accordingly.
Furthermore, researchers debate the relationship between working memory and long-term memory. In other words, there may be no correlation there. So if you can’t remember where you just put your keys, you shouldn’t assume your memory is shot.
Finally, this article reminded me of one I read a few years back that always stuck with me. It’s subject was similar. It postulated that humans naturally group things into fives. That, for example, up to five persons could all be dynamically and actively involved in the same conversation but beyond five, i.e. if just one more person came into the fold, the discussion would naturally and almost without fail split into two. This article proposed that it all came down to the fact that we have five digits on each hand, making five the number of one, full group in our subconscious minds. I just always thought that was cool.