The Number 7


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Today we are going to Muse about the importance of the number seven.  If this is your first visit, welcome to Musings. If you have been here before, welcome back. Over time we are going to talk about many things: the past, the present, perhaps the future, travel, art, society and more. Wherever my musing takes me. I hope you will come along with me.

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The Number 7

The Magic Number 7

Miller’s Law

Our capacity to instantly comprehend or remember objects, letters, digits, etc. is limited.  Most people can remember or grasp up to seven things with no problem.  Above that number people group things into chunks of seven or less.

As reported in Wikipedia, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology. It was published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University‘s Department of Psychology in Psychological Review. It is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. This is frequently referred to as Miller’s Law.

Look at this illustration.Five Rectangles

You could see immediately 5 rectangles within the frame.  You did not have to count.  This is within the limit of seven.  You knew at a glance there were five.

Now look at this illustration.squares 12 irregular

Did you know instantly how many rectangles were within the square?  I doubt it.  Did you count?  Likely, or you processed the number by grouping  chunks of seven or less and adding the totals.  There is one.  There are two.  There are another two. There are four and so on.  The point is that the number was greater than your ability to immediately comprehend.  That is a human limitation.

Birds, I am told, can immediately understand numbers up to twenty.

Now look at this illustration.squares 12 regular

You knew there were twelve right away without counting.  People either see three rows of four rectangles or four columns of three rectangles.  The information either way is within the limit of seven.

One more.

squares 24 regular copy

My guess is that you had to count. Three rows of eight or eight columns of three.  Either way more than seven groupings.

This concept has been known for a long time.  Here are three antique playing cards:   sevens.  Some people see these  and instantly know the number is seven.  Other people see them as groupings of 4-3,  3-3-1, and 5-2.  Whoever designed these intuitively knew the concept of pattern recognition and the limit of seven.

Playing cards

Playing cards

These are modern cards I picked up in Mexico.  Same Concept.

Mexican Playing Cards

Mexican Playing Cards

As a visual artist, I find  this understanding  helpful in composition and design.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When planning events or communicating with people keeping it simple, within the limit of seven, can be a successful guide.  History tells us that.  Think of Woodrow Wilson with his Fourteen Points.  It was too much.  French President Georges Clemenceau privately remarked of Wilson’s plan that “God gave us the ten commandments and we broke them. Now Mr. Wilson has given us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” 

more to come

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Works on Paper

On The Waterfront

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Horses with Floral

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Horses Four

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Horse Collection

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About Thomas L. Tribby

Professional artist: painter, sculptor, print maker. Maintains a studio in West Palm Beach, Florida
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