Is speed reading compatible with short-term memory?

as you probably know, short term-memory can store and keep 7± 2 Pieces of information in one time. but most of speed reading courses insist on keep reading until end of a chapter without a break for review and rearrange the information

so our short memory have to store much more than 7 or even 9 pieces of information

so isnt it a paradox with short term memory function?

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Normal reading or speed reading would not make a difference in this case.

The 7±2 theory was in 1956, since then it has had many contradictions, it is quite simply not accurate or precise enough.

thanks for your comment
the theory may have some problems but the basis is not different. our short term memory has limited capacity for storing information. in normal reading I myself try to use memory techniques for encoding information into my mind. so there is no problem for recalling materials but i have some difficulties in speed reading techniques
because it ignores the self-conscious processing of information
even the method which most of the courses teach as a study method is completely different with they taught in the first part of course as speed reading( Meta guiding)

Meta guiding has a notable effect over just skimming without meta guiding, I can’t vouch for the other methods.

However, the reason their methods don’t work, has a lot less to do with short-term memory capacity (in this context). Think back at the reading example, while you may use mnemonics, many other people do not and they still are able to recall more than if they use some of the speed reading techniques.

Abiding qualitatively, to the short-term memory capacity principle, they should only be able to recall the end of the text they are reading, which is not true.

I do however agree with this to a large extent.

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I politely disagree. The 7±2 is pretty accurate in studies done on the overall population. The anomalies arise when you aren’t using the average person or method.


yes I know that lots of people dont use mnemonics and memory techniques. in the past i was one of them and I didnt use any technique, but I was still successful in understanding.
but these techniques make studying extremely fun and unboring.
but i still have problem with using speed reading techniques for understanding some types of fields like medicine or biology that need self-conscious processing as you yourself go for it
however i want to know more about any experiences which can help me using speed reading in a useful way

This is because our brains are more suited to store language, which is often a collection of information like a sentence or a story. Because language is so versatile, a sentence can be stored in the brain with slightly different words but the underlying meaning of the sentence remains the same, this makes recalling stories even easier. The difficulty lies in singular information like dates or jargon and information that is not language like pictures and non-common symbols. That’s why people can recall a harry potter book better than a book about computer programming.

I also would like to mention something extra to the short term memory discussion. I used to think that the 7±2 was inaccurate as well. My digit span is around 15 and in the past I refused to believe that my short term memory was double of that of the average person, that seemed unrealistic to me. Until I started to look at the raw data, which changed my mind completely.

Recently I read about a study done in 1997 that tested the digit span of 1000 people divided into groups of 50, ranging from early teenagers to 70/80+ elderly to look for the difference of the forward and backward digit span in relation to age.

I was suprised to learn that only 26 out of a 1000 people could recall a 9 digit number forward and only 25 could recall an 8 digit span backwards. The average digit span forward and backwards were both even slightly below 7 digits. This was a study done in 1997, 41 years after the theory in 1956!

The gap between a savant like me and the average person when it comes to cognitive power still seems surreal to me but I cannot deny the data anymore

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very nice explanation
i didnt use this chunking, but in my recent searching and studying i read a lot of positive comments about this chunking and when i experienced it found it very useful and reliable

It is not really chunking but you do use it. You are using it right now as you are reading this sentence. Your brain and everyone else’s brain can store language easier than other types of information. It is not a method, it is the way our brains work. We evolved this way.

The data isn’t wrong, but there is a slight issue with the conclusion you can form off it. For example if I were to speak to 1000 people about whether they remembered what they ate today, and 999 of them said yes, I may infer that memory lasts for at minimum half a day. This is clearly inaccurate. Typically this isn’t an issue in research because you only suppose it could be the case and that further investigation is needed to confirm this.

I agree.

The only problem with this, is why our brains would be more suited to store language. If you consider a short-term memory capacity limit principle, then our brains are not capable of being more suited to store language. If you consider perhaps a short-term memory capacity principle along with particular cases of being more suited to storage, in this case, the simple 7±2 is wrong on its own but right in the dual-system.

In the 1970’s for example, research suggested that there was no such thing as a capacity limit and that instead it was a time limit. More recent research agrees that both of these are present (a time limit and a capacity limit) as a dual system. There is also no precise classification of ‘items’ as it is more so chunks. One may assume that an item is something like ‘3’ but our brain may not represent ‘3’ as a single item, so the exact quantity may not even be anything like what we perceive it to be.

For example in this paper: What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? (2008)

It is still quite possible that there is a speech-based short-term storage mechanism that is by and large independent of the chunk-based mechanism. In terms of the popular model of Baddeley (2000), the former is the phonological loop and the latter, the episodic buffer. In terms of Cowan (1988, 1995, 1999, 2005), the former is part of activated memory, which may have a time limit due to decay, and the latter is the focus of attention, which is assumed to have a chunk capacity limit.

Later studies suggested that the limit in capacity is more typically only three or four units (Broadbent, 1975; Cowan, 2001).

Or in this paper : George Miller’s Magical Number of Immediate Memory in Retrospect: Observations on the Faltering Progression of Science (2015)

This kind of dual, item-plus-time-limit approach seems to have some validity (e.g., Cowan, Lichty, & Grove, 1990; Chen & Cowan, 2009), though both kinds of limits must be painstakingly disentangled from interference effects (Cowan, Saults, & Blume, 2014; Oberauer, Lewandowsky, Farrell, Jarrold, & Greaves, 2012; Ricker & Cowan, 2014).

The capacity is clearly controversial still, even those at the forefront of the research do not all agree with each-other.

Even this paper(2010)


In a famous paper humorously describing “the magical number seven plus or minus two,” Miller (1956) claimed to be persecuted by an integer. He demonstrated that one can repeat back a list of no more than about seven randomly ordered, meaningful items or chunks (which could be letters, digits, or words). Other research has yielded different results, though. Young adults can recall only 3 or 4 longer verbal chunks, such as idioms or short sentences (Gilchrist, Cowan, & Naveh-Benjamin, 2008). Some have shrugged their shoulders, concluding that the limit “just depends” on details of the memory task. Recent research, however, indicates when and how the limit is predictable.

The recall limit is important because it measures what is termed working memory (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960), the few temporarily active thoughts. Working memory is used in mental tasks, such as language comprehension (for example, retaining ideas from early in a sentence to be combined with ideas later on), problem solving (in arithmetic, carrying a digit from the ones to the tens column while remembering the numbers), and planning (determining the best order in which to visit the bank, library, and grocery). Many studies indicate that working memory capacity varies among people, predicts individual differences in intellectual ability, and changes across the life span (Cowan, 2005).

It has been difficult to determine the capacity limit of working memory because multiple mechanisms retain information. Considerable research suggests, for example, that one can retain about 2 seconds’ worth of speech through silent rehearsal (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Working memory cannot be limited this way alone, though; in running span procedures, only the last 3 to 5 digits can be recalled (less than 2 seconds’ worth). In these procedure, the participant does not know when a list will end and, when it does, must recall several items from the end of the list (Cowan, 2001).

Added to this I have for example made a new method that increases your verbal memory span by a little which I haven’t shared yet. This method works on all verbal data and is very strange. I’m not even sure if it works for everyone yet. It does not use any mnemonics but does use an unusual form of rehearsal and can increase digit span by perhaps 4 digits or more. It does take a little more time without practice. It does however prove that span isn’t very simple.

This is not the same method as the digit span test though. If you want to know how long people’s memory last then you should also ask what they ate yesterday and if they can recall that, then continue by asking what they ate the day before yesterday and you continue this until they can’t recall what they ate. Let’s say that from 1000 people, the average person could recall the food they ate up until 3 days ago, now you have some basis for how long people’s memory last for food they ate but even this is not exactly similar to the digit span test.

The only solid argument that can be made against the digit span test is wether the 7±2 theory also applies to other information other than numbers. People have a much harder time remembering pictures than numbers but people can recall an average sentence easily which is often 15 words. So those data alone suggest that the 7±2 theory only applies to numbers.

In my opinion, the brain itself is at fault. The preference the brain has of certain things over other things makes it incredibly difficult to create a general basis for memory. This is also the biggest problem for a general IQ score. If you don’t know if a 5 digitspan is truly more useful than a 4 digitspan then memory won’t mean anything until a threshold is found that shows any value in the real world. Words like ‘value’ and ‘succes’ often complicate things even further by both being a very subjective term.

My father in law is a carpenter. He has been for around 40 years now. He is not a very complex thinker on most things but he knows exactly how to built a multimillion dollar mansion to the perfection desired by a customer. The level of expertise he has as a carpenter is so high, that it is hard to argue that, for example a surgeon has a better memory than my father in law. Everything a surgeon knows about the human body is equavalent to how much my father in law knows about carpenting.

He knows more about buildings and gardens than any real estate agent, yet, in my country, you need to study HBO to go into real estate while for carpenting you only need MBO which is by most people considered a lower degree. What does short term memory or digit span even mean in this context and how are real life examples like this not talked about more often?

I digressed a bit here but my point is that when it comes to the human brain, we know too little to form any sort of basis that is of value for the outside world. Is a digit span of 5 enough for succes in the real world? We don’t know. Is short term memory the most important part of speed reading? We don’t know.


Excellent point!