George Miller [Magical Number 7 +/-2] Part 6

From: Elizabeth Hocking (
Date: Sun Feb 22 1998 - 17:55:24 GMT

Dear all,

I have read part six - recoding - of the article by Miller and here
are my thoughts and comments.

In the first paragraph of this section, Miller stated: "Since the
memory span is a fixed number if chunks, we can increase the number
of bits of information that it contains by building larger and larger
chunks, each chunk containing more information than before."
This is the essence of the whole of this section of his article. An
example could be taking snowdrops, daffodils, crocuses, dandelions,
daisies, tulips, roses and bluebells and renaming them as flowers.
These join trees, bushes and grass as vegetation, and so on.

The example that Miller gives is morse code. He says that after the
man learning this code organises sounds into letters, "the letters
organise themselves into words". This is not a particularly hard idea
to grasp, except that the way Miller says this is rather amusing, as
it suggests that, put in those words, it is the letters doing the
work rather than the man who is learning!

Miller confirms that the jargon for this renaming is "recoding", and
although there are many methods for this, the easiest is that which I
illustrated with the names of flowers.

Miller recounts experiments undertaken by Sidney Smith in the 1950s.
One task that Smith introduced was recoding 18 digit binary numbers
(many more than people can recall, which is normally 7 +/- 2) into
chunks with decimal names. However, after participants said that they
had learned this recoding system, their recollection of the digits
were better than before learning, but not as good as Smith expected.
The conclusion drawn was that the time spent learning (5-10 minutes)
was not long enough. The switch between codes must be nearly
automatic. Therefore, Smith drilled himself on the methods and
enabled himself to recall a 40 digit binary number. In reading this,
I noted that many things that we do involve automation. For example,
remembering phone numbers, driving, typing. We learn to automate so
that remembering things is not so time-consuming.

Miller goes on to say that "The point is that recoding is an
extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information
that we can deal with. In one form or another we use recoding
constantly in our daily behaviour." This reminded me of the accounts
that Stevan gave of a person (I can't remember his name or codename)
that was unable to recode because he had a seemingly limitless memory
and saw the same dog in different positions as different and
therefore needing a new name.

"It seems probable that even memorisation can be studied in these
terms". I have often been told to make memory links between things
that I need to remember, which works, as long as you don't forget the
links! A television show of a few years ago demonstrated this by
pitting members of an audience who had learnt information through
memory links using movements of the arms, against experts in the
field of the information they had learned. Very often, those who had
learnt the information all at once received the most points.

In reading this article, I thought of an instance where I learnt
something, and still remember it 8 years on. When I was 11, a few
friends and I learnt the order of the books of the New Testament in
the Bible to help with RS lessons. I cannot remember learning them,
but since soon after I can rattle off these 27 names automatically,
with no thought whatsoever. Do I remember the order and link between
each, or do I recode them into 5 groups of five and the last 2, or
does the motor movement of my mouth cause them all to be remembered?
I have more difficulty writing them down, and this is only helped by
saying them aloud. This suggests that it is the movement of my mouth
that I have recoded. Does this make sense?

Obviously recoding is important in language, but Miller says that the
recoding of images is important in our everyday lives, but this is
much more difficult to study empirically.

I hope this gives an overview of this section of the paper. See you

Elizabeth Hocking

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