George A. Miller Feb. 3, 1920 - July 22, 2012 Pioneer in the Field of Cognitive Psychology
Vitello, Paul, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)
Psychological research was in a kind of rut in 1955 when George A. Miller, a professor at Harvard, delivered a paper titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which helped set off an explosion of new thinking about thinking and opened a new field of research known as cognitive psychology.
The dominant form of psychological study at the time, behaviorism, had rejected Freud's theories of "the mind" as too intangible, untestable and vaguely mystical. Its researchers instead studied behavior in laboratories, observing and recording test subjects' responses to carefully administered stimuli. Mainly, they studied rats.
Mr. Miller, who died on July 22 at his home in Plainsboro, N.J., at the age of 92, revolutionized the world of psychology by showing in his paper that the human mind, though invisible, could also be observed and tested in the lab.
"George Miller, more than anyone else, deserves credit for the existence of the modern science of mind," said Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author. "He was certainly among the most influential experimental psychologists of the 20th century."
Mr. Miller borrowed a testing model from the emerging science of computer programming in the early 1950s to show that humans' short- term memory, when encountering the unfamiliar, could absorb roughly seven new things at a time.
When asked to repeat a random list of letters, words or numbers, he wrote, people got stuck "somewhere in the neighborhood of seven."
Some people could recall nine items on the list, some fewer than seven. But regardless of the things being recalled -- color-words, food-words, numbers with decimals, numbers without decimals, consonants, vowels -- seven was the statistical average for short- term storage. (Long-term memory, which followed another cognitive formula, was virtually unlimited.)
Mr. Miller could not say why it was seven. He speculated that survival might have favored early humans who could retain "a little information about a lot of things" rather than "a lot of information about a small segment of the environment."
But that, he concluded, was beside the point. He had articulated an idea that was to become a touchstone of cognitive science: that whatever else the brain might be, it was an information processor, with systems that obeyed mathematical rules, that could be studied.
Mr. Miller, who was trained in behaviorism, was among the first of many researchers and theorists to challenge its scientific principles during the 1950s. Mr. Miller and a colleague, Jerome S. …