Posts Tagged ‘memory’



Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

It’s happened to everyone – you’re about to say something important when suddenly – your mind goes blank. Noth-ing. Your train of thought slips into a tunnel of grey fuzziness and you panic. Where did that great idea go? Did the CIA “scrub” your memory bank or have you just been watching too many spy movies?

The problem is that our short-term memory allows us very limited storage capacity and most of us fail to leverage that capacity with much success. World famous cognitive psychologist, George Miller, who passed away this summer at age 92, uncovered the secrets about how we retain information.

Based on years of research and studies, Miller discovered that the average individual can remember roughly seven “chunks” of information such as words, names, or numbers at any moment, before needing to “refill” their short-term memory bank. In his often cited paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” Miller wrote that on average most people can retain up to five words at a time.

Think of your short-term memory bank like an ATM bank account. When you go to the ATM to withdraw funds, (or ideas) you can only withdraw the contents that your account can store – and in the case of our short-term memory – that’s up to seven numbers or five or six names or words. Our short-term memory doesn’t have overdraft protection and like any bank, you can’t withdraw what you haven’t deposited.

So here’s how to save your self from ever experiencing that panicky brain drain feeling again:

  • Use notes, or talking points that contain no more than five or six words per point. – Look at one note before you speak and if you forget something, stop speaking and quickly look down to find your next point. Joe Biden did this during his recent debate with Paul Ryan.
  • Take notes when listening to others – short notes, along the margin, allow you to easily locate your point when it’s your turn to speak. Again, you’ll see the Presidential candidates using this technique during the debates.
  • When notes aren’t practical – think in twos or threes and visualize those brief two or three ideas in a memorable, mental graphic. I like baseball, so I visualize the bases and picture my two or three ideas standing on first, second and third base. I will often see home plate as my one “Big Idea” and the bases as the supporting ideas.

According to an article about Miller in the LA Times, “The number seven also had a role in his personal life…he made his only hole in one at age 77, on the seventh green…using a seven iron.”

Find your own magic in fives, sixes and sevens by leveraging the capacity of your short-term memory – you’ll feel like you’ve come out of the tunnel of grey fuzziness into a bright, clear day.

(Visit Miller’s creation of WordNet, a type of electronic Thesaurus)