The Numbers Game
Brian Thwaits shows people how to enhance their learning, communication, creativity, and problem-solving and thinking skills. His sessions tap the latest brain research and learning theories to suggest—in fun and delightful ways—innovative and practical approaches to handling issues within the workplace and in our personal lives. Below, Brian examines the popular (and perhaps mistaken) theory of the “ideal” amount of information the human mind can handle at one time, and then takes on our “Speakers’ Spotlight” questionnaire:
What’s with all the stories in the media about aging brains?
The topic seems to be everywhere these days: newspaper headlines, magazine covers, book titles, television newscasts. It’s in infomercials, too. And if you do an online search of “aging brains,” you’ll discover plenty of information that will easily keep you occupied for a substantial period of time. I just gave it a quick try myself, and here’s just a small sample of the intriguing links I found:
Seven Anti-Aging Tips to Keep Your Brain Young
Seven Tips for Improving Your Memory As You Age
Seven Anti-Aging Superfoods
Seven Tips to Ward Off Brain Aging
Seven Anti-Aging Benefits of Yoga
Seven Tips to Age Well and Live up to 100 Years
Seven Simple and Natural Anti-Aging Tips
That’s a lot of sevens. And there’s a reason for that.
Way back in 1956, George A. Miller published his paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” in Psychological Review, and it’s since been judged the journal’s most influential paper of all time. In what has become known as Miller’s Law, he famously surmised that only around seven items can be held in a person’s short-term memory at any one time.
Recently, however, this notion has been disputed by other researchers, including both Gordon Parker at the University of New South Wales and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri, who argue that the magic number may, in fact, be only four.
So here’s a thought: ENOUGH WITH THE TOP TEN LISTS!
Seriously. No more Top Ten lists, all right? Maybe Miller is correct that seven is the magic number of memory. Or perhaps it’s Parker and Cowan who are right, and it’s just four. Either way, I think we can all agree that TEN items are way too many things for our brains to manage.
So let’s learn from the masters. Kudos to the authors, for instance, who were smart enough to hit the brakes at just the right time when naming their books: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; The Seven Laws of A Golf Swing; The Seven Keys to Weight-Loss Freedom; A Seven-Step Guide to Big, Hairy, Outrageous Sales Growth. There’s even a book about the number itself, called Seven: The Number for Happiness, Love and Success.
Props, as well, to the smart folks who came up with all those lists we’re oh so familiar with: the Seven Wonders of the World, the Seven Colours of the Rainbow, the Seven Seas, the Group of Seven, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And good for the theologians who were responsible for stopping at seven when compiling their checklists of Deadly Sins and Virtues, both of which should be doable as a result. But, hey, what about the Ten Commandments? A few too many rules, don’t you think?
So, are you listening, David Letterman? Time magazine? Consumer Reports? iTunes? And do we really need a Top Ten List of Star Trek Languages? Or a Top Ten List of Competitive Eating Achievements NOT to be Tried at Home? Or a Top Ten List of Baffling Works of Justin Bieber Fan Fiction? (I especially wish I was making that last one up –– but, sadly, I am not.)
My point is this: Our mental capacity is a tad limited. So, when formulating to-do lists, details in e-mail messages, agenda items for meetings, bullet points on PowerPoint slides, things to do during the summer holidays… you really should consider throwing out the anchor when you get to around four bits of information.
And, whatever you do, definitely stop at seven, OK?
What inspired you to want to be a speaker?
I got such a kick out of teaching college students how to think, learn and communicate that I wanted to take my show on the road and share the information with a broader audience.
Any advice for aspiring speakers?
You need to use both sides of your brain to be a good speaker…because it’s both a craft and an art.
What do you like to leave audiences with?
My hope is always that they’ve found at least one idea so interesting that they’ll want to share it with someone else (a co-worker, a family member, a stranger) as soon as I’m finished speaking.
How do you prepare before a talk? Any special rituals?
The night before I speak, I read over my notes and do one last run-through of my presentation, always with the aim of surpassing my client’s expectations. I arrive early on the day of the event and mingle with as many people as I can–so, by the time I’m introduced, I’ll feel like I know my audience a lot better than when I first arrived.
A good luck talisman?
My wife usually texts me a good luck smooch just before I hit the stage.
Do you have an especially memorable event you can tell us about?
I delivered an ‘older and wiser’ presentation at a Women’s Canadian Club event in London a few months ago. The organizing committee was so gracious, and they treated me royally. The 500+ in the audience were one of the most engaged groups I’ve ever spoken to. They gave me a standing ovation!
Any funny or embarrassing situations you found yourself in as a speaker?
I use a lot of props in my presentations. I’ve been yanked out of airport lines and pulled aside so security staff can rummage through my suitcase. Everyone has a good laugh when they discover the skulls and brains in my bag are only made of plastic.
Is there a charitable cause that you feel passionate about? Why?
Having worked with learning disabled young people, my heart is very much in literacy projects. I’ve been involved with Indigo’s Love of Reading Foundation for several years and am a proud member of its Adopt A School program. Every time I speak at an event, I donate a library book to a needy school on behalf of my clients.
If you had to choose a new career, what would it be?
Grammar Cop. (Once an English teacher, always an English teacher.)
Desert island album?
None. I’d listen to the waves.
Best subject in school?
Last book you read?
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Last film you saw?
Life of Pi
Well, I don’t know if it’s a crush exactly, but I’m quite enthralled with Sir Ken Robinson. I ran into him at the airport after we both had spoken at separate events in Saskatoon last year, and it was a thrill to meet and chat with him.
What is it like traveling so much? How do you relax? How do you stay healthy?
I love flying, and I especially enjoy going places I’ve never been to before. I usually turn off the seat-back screen and read or listen to music to relax. And I carry a ridiculous amount of healthy snacks in my carry-on bag to help steer myself clear of junk food.
How about at home?
I’m lucky to share my home office with a wonderful dog named Murphy, who keeps me calm and grounded. He likes to take me on three or four walks a day, so I get plenty of exercise, too!