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A partial analogy exists between the lifespan neuropsychological development of individuals and the biological evolution of species: In both of these major categories of growth, progressive emergence of wholes transcends inherently limited part-processes. The remarkably small purview of each moment of consciousness experienced by an individual may be a crucial aspect of maintaining organization in that individual's cognitive development, protecting it from combinatorial chaos. In this essay I summarize experimental psychology research showing that working memory capacity comprises the so-called magical number 7±2 items, not only for words and digits but for spatial items and other sorts of cognitive materials, and not only in humans but also in other species. This is so to such an extent that 7±2 may be a “constant of nature.” The small quantity range 7±2 independent items, which builds upon a more elementary, instantaneous working memory capacity of three or four items, is surprisingly independent of the time duration of a cognitive task. Moreover, it is largely independent of ontogeny. Explanations of these powerful facts about working memory are offered here within both a functionalistic framework and a framework of hypothetical neural processes. At the neural level, working memory dynamics may comprise certain brain wave harmonics or topological relationships in the sheetlike cortex. Within the functionalistic framework, I suggest an additional analogy, pertaining to cultural evolution, with Tom Gilbert's work on risk analysis and “the global problematic” that follows from unforeseen consequences of the expansiveness of human ambition. Several connections are drawn with ideas presented by participants in the Chicago Religion and Science Group about how theologies and sciences try to understand the possibility of adaptive exercises of human freedom in the face of the extreme finiteness of each human individual.

Keywords: Thomas Gilbert; brain waves; cerebral cortex; cognitive science; comparative psychology; evolution; history; journey metaphor; limit problems; short-term memory

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Robert B. Glassman is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Box E1, Lake Forest College, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045-2399;, Email:

Publication date: 2005-03-01

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