#20 on the Top 20 Psychologists of the 20th Century – George A. Miller

The biggest takeaway from George A. Miller is that while we are limited in the amount of information we can take in, and limited in the duration of time that we can store that information, we can increase the overall amount of information by chunking groups of items together. This is one of the pillars of learning and a powerful tool when used consciously.

George A. Miller is number 20 on the Top Psychologists of the Twentieth Century, and while I was not familiar with the name, I was familiar with the research. I first learned about the 7 item limit of our short term memory in elementary school. But they never taught me the more important principle of chunking – or recoding. Recoding is the idea that you can nest pieces of information together in groups and hold those groups in your short term memory. So while you are still limited to seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) you have in effect hacked the system to hold much more. We are all familiar with this idea, you can hold your telephone number and your address in mind simultaneously, while each of those items is longer than 7 “bits”.

It is remarkable that given Miller’s impact on the landscape of science – and “discovering” such a powerful and practical tool as chunking – I can hardly find anything out about the man himself. It doesn’t help that he has a common name – and it is shared with the successful director of Mad Max. Miller’s books do not seem popular today, as evidenced by the most bare Amazon page I have seen.

After the notable achievement that was “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, Miller went on to do important work in Psycholinguistics with Noam Chomsky. As well as co-found the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which “institutionalized the revolution and launched the field of cognitive science. Today the study of the human mind is among the most exciting frontiers of science. Its practical applications include the design of software, the diagnosis of neurological disease, and the formation of public policy, and its theories have revolutionized our understanding of ancient problems such as consciousness, free will, and human nature.” 1

Over time, Miller’s interests turned away from the Markov process on which Shannon’s analysis of language was based – and he turned toward Chomsky and the Syntactic Theory. The study of linguistics which was having its own revolution. I want to do more reading around this area because, as Miller state’s, “that language must be a key element of any theory of psychology because it is a means of making private or internal psychological phenomena observable, measurable, and public.”2

The key strategic decision Miller made was to break away from the popular Behavioristic framework of the day. This led to the proposal to switch from a stimulus response view of the world to what they labeled “TOTE” (test, operate, test, exit). This reminds me of Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. This structure is more dynamic and allows for productive interaction with the wicked world of complexity.

Miller wrote a history of the “Cognitive Revolutions”. It is elegant and to the point at just 3 pages. It is frustrating trying to get a sense of the man from my google searches. I want to know more about him – but perhaps that is just something I have been classically conditioned to expect in our story-saturated culture. He appears to have led an interesting life – attending University of Alabama in the 40s and then Harvard for his Ph.D. He served in the Army Signal Corps during WWII.

The closest I was able to get to a sense of who he was came from reading a collection of memories from former students and colleagues. Like much of Miller’s own writing, this snippet reflects the brevity with which they communicate. “George Miller taught me how to make hollandaise. In the mid-1970s, George was a professor at Rockefeller University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy. George lived in Princeton, but had an apartment in RU’s faculty and student housing building where he stayed during the week. As a graduate student, I was always hungry and looking for a meal. George invited me to dinner at his place. He served nice wine, steak, and asparagus with hollandaise.” 3

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