Limitations of the Conscious Mind


We human have a nearly unlimited capacity for understanding, knowledge, wisdom and even computation.  All this mental capacity, however, becomes useless when we focus on things that add nothing to the human condition or evolution.

Why, in the name of common sense, do we persist in using this unlimited mental capacity for nonsense like searching for Brad and Angelina’s baby pictures or rehashing civil war conspiracies?  (Note: I’ve done both myself, so I’m not immune to the nonsense either!) This is like cramming the volume of all the oceans in the world into a shot glass.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this marvelously-brilliant mind of ours is controlled by a relative idiot – the conscious mind. Like it or not, this mind is the one in charge . . . the “being” that calls the shots.  Or at least we think he/she does.

If the human brain is compared to a computer (and the mind being analogous to software), the conscious mind is the “controller” – the one who inputs data to this computer and expresses the findings.  If the controller is fully alert, the input is sharp and the results useful.  If the controller is foggy, both input and results are also foggy and unintelligible.

Using this analogy, we come to the inevitable conclusion that not only is the average controller asleep, he is also dreaming, and inputting data based on these dreams! How else can we explain our cultural obsession with the likes of Paris Hilton??

von Neumann

von Neumann

So who is it, actually, that controls a mind that is estimated to have the powerful reserve of over 100 quintillion bits (100,000,000,000,000,000,000) of memory available to it (according to John Von Neumann)??  How much working capacity does this being exhibit?

Mind’s Limit Found: 4 Things at Once

Clara Moskowitz, writing for in April 2008, reported on some research that indicates that, regardless of how powerful we think our mind is, it is functionally rather stupid.  She writes that there is an ongoing debate about how many items we can store in our conscious mind, in what’s called our working memory.

The answer: three or four. Here are excerpts from her article:

Working memory is a more active version of short-term memory, which refers to the temporary storage of information. Working memory relates to the information we can pay attention to and manipulate.

Early research found the working memory cut-off to be about seven items, which is perhaps why telephone numbers are seven digits long (although some early telephone dialing started with a two- or three-letter “exchange,” often the first letters of a community name, followed by four or five figures, e.g. Pennsylvania 6-5000). Now scientists think the true capacity is lower when people are not allowed to use tricks like repeating items over and over or grouping items together.

Nelson Cowan

Nelson Cowan

“For example, when we present phone numbers, we present them in groups of three and four, which helps us to remember the list,” said University of Missouri-Columbia psychologist  Nelson Cowan, who co-led the study with colleagues Jeff Rouder and Richard Morey. “That inflates the estimate. We believe we’re approaching the estimate that you get when you cannot group. There is some controversy over what the real limit is, but more and more I’ve found people are accepting this kind of limit.”

The study was published April 22, 2008 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and involved presenting people with different squares – some colored and some not – and asking them to make decisions based on short-term memory.  The working memory of each participant was consistently three or four.

Masters of Memory

While the average person may only be able to hold three or four things in mind at once, some people have achieved amazing feats of working memory. Contestants at the World Memory Championship (most recently held in Bahrain in September 2007) often recall hundreds of digits in order after only five minutes. But even these masters of memory seem to start with the same basic capacities as everyone else, and improve their abilities with strategies and tricks.

“A very famous study was a test done of a long-distance runner who learned to associate digits together in ways that were meaningful to him with respect to running times,” one researcher said. “He could repeat back lists of up to 80 digits in the right order, but if you gave him a list of words, he was at seven plus-or-minus two like everyone else.”

Working memory and intelligence

Although there seems to be a cap on the average number of things a person can remember at once, basic working memory capacity does vary among individuals. Interestingly, those that test well on working memory tasks also seem to do well at learning, reading comprehension and problem solving.

“People accept that intelligence seems to be related to working memory,” Cowan said. “The information you can hold in your mind at one time is the information you can interrelate. If you have a better working memory we believe that your problem-solving abilities are better.”

Researchers don’t know what causes these variations in working-memory abilities — perhaps they are genetic, perhaps they arise from differences in early childhood environments or education.

The good news is people can improve their performance on certain working-memory tasks with training. When children practice these tasks, over time they get better. And not only do their scores on the memory tasks improve, but their scores on tests of attention and reasoning can also rise.

It’s all in there

Researchers debate the relationship between working memory and long-term memory. While some hold that the two are independent storage facilities, others say working memory is simply the part of long-term memory that we can currently access.

Many scientists believe that almost all of our experiences are encoded into long-term memory, and that forgetting is simply a matter of not being able to access that memory.

“It’s in there somewhere, the problem is just getting to it,” Cowan said. “Everything gets encoded into long-term memory almost immediately, but it gets encoded in a way that may not be distinct enough to be retrieved.”

NEXT: Are Limits to the Mind a Strategy to Avoid Power??


  1. […] No?  Then why do we persist in doing  this same thing to our subconscious mind – the source of all feelings, memory, and unlimited intelligence and wisdom?  Our conscious mind can only direct (and is really pretty stupid). […]

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