#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

Inputs and Outputs

Lately, I have been thinking about inputs and outputs. Something to the effect of, “you are what you eat” and “tell me the five people you spend the most time with and I can predict your future.”

Thinking about inputs – what comes into my “system” – also has me thinking about the inherently complicated nature of systems. Always more than one variable present at a time – so control becomes impossible.

But in general, do you try to effect the outcome? How often do you think about the inputs coming into your life? For me, I don’t think I have ever unfollowed anyone on Instagram. I hardly ever get rid of clothes. I hardly ever get rid of files or papers or books. Things just collect. That means more inputs – more things constantly tugging, I go through life accumulating.

I am not advocating any dirty label, like minimalism, or finding what sparks joy, or Zen Buddhism – but instead acknowledging our power. We make choices everyday. We choose our inputs, and that controls our outputs.

Today, I will unfollow 3 people on Instagram.

Details and the Devil

Details are exhausting. What percentage of people who accept terms and conditions read them? How much attention do you pay to the oil with which you cook your food? What about the material of the frying pan? (hint: Teflon prior to 2013, not looking so good for the health) Maybe you pay attention to these things when cook at home, but what about when you go out to eat? Given that oils and pan materials vary greatly in health related studies, it would seem important – but how many details can we worry about?

I was thinking about this while studying the German language. In German, the cases are specific. The articles change depending on their role in the sentence. This allows you to say something like “Den Apfel hat das Madchen” which to an untrained eye looks like “The apple has the girl”, but the sentence actually says, “The girl has the apple.” One letter changes the entire sentence. Den Apfel versus Der Apfel and who owns who is completely changed.

This led me to thinking about the expression, “the devil is in the details”. It is a common expression. One that I use or hear when something goes wrong, or when someone does something “careless”. One is reminded that we should pay more attention. That the details matter. But to what extent or end? This can be exhausting. I am not a lawyer – so even if I read the terms and conditions, would I understand them? Should I understand all the details behind this website? Every line of code? What about the binary sequences that make it up? Its details all the way down.

This got me curious, where did this devil in the details phrase come from, and why inflict it on the population? Everyone can’t be expected to know everything. So I looked it up and to my surprise, it appears that it derives from an earlier phrase, “God is in the details”. What a different notion. In the details await opportunity. By looking closer, by learning a bit more you might unravel mysteries.

I find this thought invigorating. The terms and conditions are now not a legal trap waiting to catch me, they are an opportunity to learn. If you take a few extra minutes to learn about health studies about oil and cooking, you might improve your health and share with your family and improve their health. God is in the details. Delightful.

On Feedback

“When feedback is immediate, clear, and concrete, people learn quickly.When feedback is delayed, abstract, and opaque, people rarely learn.” James Clear

I have recently started trading on RobinHood. It is fun – which might be a problem. But the fun part of trading is that you get direct feedback. Decisions are rewarded or punished. It is the same reason I love the chess.com puzzle feature. You are immediately rewarded or punished. Feedback is instant.

For so much of life, feedback is not immediate. Goals are distant or unquantified. Success is not something measurable in data. How do you measure happiness? This is both wonderful and tiring. We should not seek to measure everything, but if you want to grow – feedback is required.

Love, Hate and Chess.com

My relationship with the Chess.com puzzle feature is borderline masochistic. The premise is simple – you are presented with a chess game that has progressed to a certain point and it is up to you to make the next move. 

There is one correct move you can make. If you make that move, you may be prompted to make another move – of which there is only one correct move. Sometimes the puzzle can involve up to 4 or even 5 moves, I believe. If any one of those moves is not perfect, you lose points off your ranking.

I have completed over 2,400+ chess puzzles. I occasionally go through periods where I pay extra and can do 25 puzzles a day – but usually I am limited to the 5 free puzzles a day. I also go for months without any puzzles, but I always return.

My ranking is a miserable 713 currently. Here is my all time chart:


My ranking never really gets any better. And that is the point of this post. The source of the masochism. I desire to actually improve, rather than just play for fun.

My current plan is to keep a journal of mistakes and revisit them. Chess.com also now has a learning feature. I will work on those puzzles with the same focus. I will also document my thoughts upon looking at a difficult board and reflect on if there is a better chain of thoughts through which I can analyze the board.

My goal is to break 900 by August 31st.

This experiment has more to do with growth in learning than chess specifically. Chess is an arena that gives immediate feedback so it will be my current training ground. I am hoping the lessons learned in improving my chess puzzle score can be applied to any area I wish to improve.