Three Is Your Brain’s Magic Number

PowerofThreeBLOG177010185What’s easier than counting to three? Not counting at all!

We have all seen and created PowerPoint presentations. We live and die by bullet points. And if you want to bore viewers quickly, use more bullets. Have you ever considered why three bullet points seems to be just enough for you to handle? Do you wonder why your life force ebbs when there are four or more pieces of information for you to digest? How a fourth or fifth point becomes a tedious list? Our minds just don’t want to put forth that much effort.

Our brains are able to see three objects as one. The moment you add a fourth or fifth element you trigger a second mode of thinking which consumes more energy, literally. The frontal lobe of your brain is activated. This requires more glucose and effort to maintain attention. More about this in a future blog post. For now, try it on a small scale. Lay three paperclips on your desk, or take three coins out of your pocket. Notice how easy it is to absorb the set of three. Now add another paper clip or two. Notice how you have to pause ever so slightly, that you begin to count? Notice how it takes more effort?

Three is powerful. Use it often.

Keeping things down to three also helps retention. Always try to limit a talk, a teaching module, or a key message to three main points. Have you ever heard of Winston Churchill’s famous quote of it will take our “blood, sweat and tears” (to finish this war). Well, he actually said, and printed this famous speech with the words, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” England’s collective consciousness couldn’t handle these four points and conveniently dropped one. We are programmed to remember and converse in threes.

Repeat that: three key points, goals, or objectives.

We are neurologically and culturally adapted to think in threes. Gold, silver and bronze. The Three Stooges. Small, medium and large. Three strikes and you’re out. Third time is a charm. Three little pigs. Renaissance architects realized the power of three. A building facade that has three parts (a central portico with two wings) is easily read as a unified building. Add a funky roof or a fourth entryway and the balance and unity is shaken. Visual artists know about the power of three. What is the most visually stable shape? The triangle. The most stable form? The pyramid.

When designing your message, learning objectives, or simply a PowerPoint slide, remember three things:

  • The brain likes threes
  • Three = one
  • All good things come in threes

Interested in others ways we all learn? Visit this blog on learning styles.

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