Dr. Miller came to prominence in the mid-1950s at Harvard University, where he and colleague Jerome Bruner founded an intellectual hothouse known as the Center for Cognitive Studies. There, Dr. Miller established his reputation as one of the leading psychologists of the late 20th century. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded Dr. Miller the National Medal of Science.
Before Dr. Miller, Bruner and Noam Chomsky came on the scene, the field of psychology was dominated by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner. Behaviorist theories — long regarded as dogma — basically posited that people act in accordance with rewards and punishments. Cognitive processes such as thought and memory could not be directly observed, Skinner argued, and therefore did not merit scientific inquiry.
Reflecting on the transformation of psychology that he helped bring about, Dr. Miller told the New York Times that the field was like a “dog turning around three times before it lies down.”
Bruner said that Dr. Miller helped “put the emphasis back on the human being as a mental being” who observes the world, processes information, commits it to memory and makes decisions.
“If any person deserves credit for creating the field of cognitive psychology as it has developed in the past roughly 60 years,” the linguist and philosopher Chomsky said in an interview, Dr. Miller is “the one.”
Many of Dr. Miller’s publications are today considered classics, none more than his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” published in the journal Psychological Review in 1956. In that essay, Dr. Miller observed that for most people, short-term memory is limited to about seven “chunks” of information.
More than five decades later, the essay remains one of the most widely cited papers in psychology. It has been trotted out to explain the human capacity to remember phone numbers. In 1981, The Washington Post editorial board pointed to Dr. Miller’s theory to argue against the U.S. Postal Service’s proposal for a nine-digit ZIP code system.
“The Magical Number Seven” was not pop science. To write it, Dr. Miller started with the premise that the brain was not a simple machine akin to the early computers then in development.
By using “intelligence intelligently,” as Bruner described the ability, human beings can use their minds to organize bits of information into what Dr. Miller called “chunks.” Nine letters — C, I, A, F, B, I, I, B and M, for example — can be transformed into three easily remembered “chunks” of information: CIA, FBI and IBM.
“Why did this apparently simple point have a decidedly major impact?” wrote Howard E. Gardner in the book “The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution.” “Psychologists had been trying for approximately a century to discover the basic laws of the human mental system. . . . Miller was holding out hope of marriage between the quantities of data collected by psychologists over the years and the rigorous new approaches of the engineering-oriented scientists. The result might be a genuine science of psychology with its own set of immutable laws.”