The Rule Of Three & The Brain
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 paragraphs (each one making a different yet complementary 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 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, a 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 of years ago, Carmine Gallo wrote a great blog post 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 high-performance takeaway from all this?
The rule of three is super sticky.
If you can deploy it everywhere you can—your note taking, content production, speaking—it'll amplify learning in yourself and others.
Use it to stock up your memory, pitch your next startup or whatever.
You'll be surprised at the results.
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