This is a tale of memory, truth, technology, and, well, the future of humanity—but it starts in high school.
If you went to high school in America, there is a pretty good chance you learned to write essays using the dreaded five paragraph method. For those who don’t remember, the structure is this: Introductory paragraph (wherein you lay out your thesis), followed by three supporting graphs (each one making a different yet complimentary supporting argument), finished with a conclusion (essentially your introduction restated and a final conclusion drawn).
What I want to point out here is the amount of data being offered up. While it’s called a five paragraph essay, the argument itself hinges on three main data points. Three core ideas. Because of this, the five paragraph essay is also known as the “hamburger essay” or “one, three, one,” or, occasionally, a “three-tier essay.”
Ever wonder why? Why three tiers? Why five paragraphs? Seriously? Generations of Americans have been taught to write this way. If, as the author David Foster Wallace, so ironically pointed out, the purpose of an education is to teach students how to think, why exactly are we teaching them to think this way?
The answer lies in working memory, our technical term for the part of your brain (roughly: frontal cortex, parietal cortex, anterior cingulate, and basal ganglia) that holds the information currently active in consciousness—that is, the things you are actually aware of, the things you can actually think about.
For example, when you ask someone for their email address, when they answer, it is working memory that holds onto that answer long enough for you to write it down. In computer terms, your working memory is your RAM. But—the most important point here—it is also an extremely limited bit of RAM.
In 1956, Harvard cognitive psychologist George Miller published what has become one of the most famous papers in psychology: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Miller’s discovery was that working memory has a limit of roughly seven items. That’s it. That’s the most stuff we can hold in our consciousness at once. That’s why phone numbers are seven digits long—any longer and we would have trouble remembering them.
But this magic number seven is actually misleading. It’s not that we can’t hold seven items in consciousness at once, it’s that we usually don’t. In fact, in thousands of follow up studies, most researchers found that we usually hold about three or four items in consciousness at once.
And this brings us back to the five paragraph essay.
Why five paragraphs? Well, because, when considering an argument, we can usually only hold onto just three or four ideas at once. Thus the structure of the essay: one introductory chunk that introduces a thesis, three supporting notions that back up the thesis, then a reiteration and, perhaps, slight extension of the thesis. In other words, the five paragraph essay is customized for the brain’s internal processing limits—it’s built to work with working memory.
Of course, it’s not just five paragraph essays. One of the most famous rules in writing, speaking and music is the “Rule of Three.” The rule is that concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable.
This is why the Declaration of Independence talks about “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s why we have three wise men and three blind mice and three musketeers. It’s “Blood, Sweat and Tears” and “Earth, Wind and Fire” and “Sex, Drugs and Rock-and-Roll.”
A couple years ago, Carmine Gallo wrote a great blog talking about how uber-presenter Steve Jobs relied on the Rule of Three. The 2011 iPad 2 was described as “thinner, lighter, faster,” while the 2007 iPhone was made up of three new products: “a new iPod, a phone and an internet communications device.”
The rule of three brings us to an overlooked facet of epistemology, our fancy word for the study of truth. In this case, we’re not talking about capital “T” truth, the truth of philosophers, rather small “t” truth, practical truth, truth for the weary trenches of this long life.
Consider that every second of every day our senses are bombarded with information. This is the data that underpins our decisions, our actions, our way. As a result, every bit that comes in must be evaluated. Is this information accurate? Am I being deceived? Am I misinterpreting something? Do I have enough information to make this judgment call?
The brain is endless trying to decide if the information we’re receiving is valid enough to act upon. And this is what I mean by small “t” practical truth—truth that is valid enough to act upon.
My point here is that while we don’t think much about epistemology consciously, subconsciously we think about it constantly. Every tidbit of salient information that enters our brain is subjected to a rigorous truth detection process. It’s a fundamental property of being human. But this process is also limited by the limits of our working memory. Think about that five paragraph essay. The goal of the essay is to make a convincing argument. Well, what is a convincing argument? It’s something that changes what we believe, it establishes a new truth. And how does this happen? By giving our truth detection system three facts to work with, by abiding by the rules of working memory.
And this brings us to technology. We have, as has been well-documented in this blog, arrived at the age of the cyborg. Humans and machines are beginning to merge. We already have soldiers returning to combat wearing bionic limbs, paraplegics able to move computer cursors with their minds, and a whole host of artificial senses (cochlear implants being only one example) to choose from.
We also have Google Glass—the internet in your eyeglasses. But it’s not hard to imagine that soon the glasses will give way to contact lens and, eventually, to brain implants. Larry Page has spoken extensively about his dream of putting Google in the brain.Ray Kurzweil, in his recent TED talk: “Get ready for hybrid thinking,” explains it like this: “So you’ll be walking along, and Google will pop up and say, “You know, Mary, you expressed concern to me a month ago that your glutathione supplement wasn’t getting past the blood-brain barrier. Well, new research just came out thirteen seconds ago that shows a whole new approach to that and a new way to take glutathione. Let me summarize it for you.”
But here’s the question—will that summary contain three items? Will it be built to work with working memory? Sure, in the beginning, perhaps. But soon we’ll be able to augment our working memory, boosting the brains internal processing limit and, by extension, our truth detection capabilities.
This fact raises some very interesting questions. Consider the state of modern media. Consider the dominance of the blowhards, the exaggerators, the one’s who are going to “tell it like it is” but don’t. In other words, consider the likes of Rush Limbaugh.
Today, our airwaves are dominated by such blather—liberal, conservative or otherwise. But what happens when our working memory can hold the whole argument, can fact check in real time, can use cloud-based super-computing capabilities to massively extend what has forever been an exceptionally limited truth detection capacity. Imagine, what happens when augmented cognition allows the rule of three to become the rule of three thousand, three million, three billion. We’re not just resetting a few parameters on our internal lie detectors, we’re making the jump to light-speed, we’re forever changing the nature of truth, and, as a result, forever changing the fundamental nature of our reality.
So say goodbye to the likes of Rush Limbaugh. And say goodbye to most everything else as well.
For all of human existence the way we live in this world has been shaped by very fundamental properties in the brain—properties like bandwidth of our truth detection system. But not for long. Oh yeah, the future is coming for us.
[image credit: road markings courtesy of Shutterstock]