What's magic about magic numbers? Chunking and data compression in short-term memory

Cognition. 2012 Mar;122(3):346-62. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.11.003. Epub 2011 Dec 15.


Short term memory is famously limited in capacity to Miller's (1956) magic number 7±2-or, in many more recent studies, about 4±1 "chunks" of information. But the definition of "chunk" in this context has never been clear, referring only to a set of items that are treated collectively as a single unit. We propose a new more quantitatively precise conception of chunk derived from the notion of Kolmogorov complexity and compressibility: a chunk is a unit in a maximally compressed code. We present a series of experiments in which we manipulated the compressibility of stimulus sequences by introducing sequential patterns of variable length. Our subjects' measured digit span (raw short term memory capacity) consistently depended on the length of the pattern after compression, that is, the number of distinct sequences it contained. The true limit appears to be about 3 or 4 distinct chunks, consistent with many modern studies, but also equivalent to about 7 uncompressed items of typical compressibility, consistent with Miller's famous magical number.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Data Compression
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*