What Is Chunking and How Can It Improve Your Memory?

Chunking a shopping list
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There are plenty of excellent strategies out there that can help you improve your short-term memory, one of which is a handy little trick known as chunking.

Chunking is a term referring to the process of taking individual pieces of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units. By grouping each piece into a large whole, you can improve the amount of information you can remember.

Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers.

For example, a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be chunked into 471-1324.

Chunking is often a useful tool when memorizing large amounts of information. By separating disparate individual elements into larger blocks, information becomes easier to retain and recall.

If you have ever struggled to recall a series of numbers or words just minutes after learning them, then you are probably aware of just how limited short-term memory can be. Psychologist George Miller suggested that people were capable of storing between five and nine units of information while more recent research proposes that short-term memory has a capacity of about four chunks of information.

Why Is Chunking So Useful?

According to neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, chunking is remarkable as it represents our ability to "hack" the limits of our memory.

While short-term memory might be limited to roughly four or five items, chunking allows people to take smaller bits of information and combine them into more meaningful, and therefore more memorable, wholes.

"In terms of grand purpose, chunking can be seen as a similar mechanism to attention: Both processes are concerned with compressing an unwieldy dataset into those small nuggets of meaning that are particularly salient," Bor explains.

"But while chunking is a marvelous complement to attention, chunking diverges from its counterpart in focusing on the compression of conscious data according to its inherent structure or the way it relates to our preexisting memories."

Bor argues that our natural tendency to see patterns and make connections is not just important for memory, but that it is also the source of creativity. As Steve Jobs once famously suggested, "Creativity is just connecting things."

How to Use Chunking to Remember

The next time you are trying to remember items from a list, start by forming smaller groups. If you are working with a list of vocabulary words, for example, you might create small groups of words that are similar or related to one another. A shopping list might be broken down into smaller grouping based on whether the items on the list are vegetables, fruits, dairy or grains.

Other ideas:

  • Group items by the first letter. It might be easier to remember that there were five items starting with A, 2 starting with C, and three starting with E.
  • Break strings of numbers up into groups of three or four. Phone numbers tend to be easier to remember because we naturally break them down with dashes denoting area code and prefix.

Chunking can be used as an everyday memory enhancer, but researchers have also found that you can improve your ability to effectively chunk information. Bor relates the story of one participant in a memory experiment who challenged himself to improve the number of items he could remember. While he was initially able to remember seven items, he was able to increase this to an astonishing 80 units of information over the course of 20 months.

The student described in the above experiment certainly experienced a dramatic improvement in memory, but it is important to note that he also devoted an hour a day, approximately four days a week for nearly two years to achieve it.

While you might not be able to devote such intense concentration to improving your memory, there are things that you can do to make the most of your brain's natural tendency to seek patterns and group information.

So what can you do to improve your ability to use chunking effectively?

  • Practice: Challenge yourself to remember lists of things, whether it’s your grocery list, vocabulary words or important dates. As you become better at remembering larger chunks of information, continue to challenge yourself to remember even more.
  • Look for Connections: As you are creating groupings, look for ways to relate units to each other in meaningful ways. What do the items share in common? Consider the function of the item, how it is categorized and even how the item is spelled. You might group items together because they are each spelled with four letters, because they start with the same letter or because they share a similar purpose.
  • Associate: Linking groups of items to things from your memory can also help make things more memorable. You might be more likely to remember that you need eggs, baking soda, and chocolate chips if you associate the items with the delicious cookies that your mother used to make.
  • Incorporate Other Memory Strategies: For example, you might use mnemonics as a way to chunk different units of information. If you are going to the grocery store and need bananas, eggs, nectarines, and tea you can create a word out of the first letters of each item you need – BENT. Once you remember the keyword, you will then be better able to recall the items represented by each letter of the acronym.

Chunking certainly is not a cure-all for memory problems, but it can be an effective tool in your memory improvement arsenal. By practicing chunking methods regularly and incorporating this technique in your study habits, you might find that you are able to remember more.

Reference

Bor, D. (2012). The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 97–185.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.

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