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How Useful is Chunking for Memory Improvement

Parul Solanki Feb 29, 2020
When different pieces of information are grouped into small, often meaningful chunks it becomes easier for memory retention. This process is known as chunking. Here we elaborate more on the concept that can be a powerful tool to help you remember things better.

Remember this...

According to psychologist George A. Miller, who came up with the concept of chunking, short-term memory can retain between five to nine pieces of information.
A concept in psychology, chunking refers to the grouping together of information into small units known as chunks to facilitate memory improvement. These chunks are grouped according to semantic and perceptual properties such that they are meaningful to the person and leads to increased retention. This is a great way to use short-term memory efficiently.
The most common example would be remembering a phone number. So if the number is 5431234 it can be broken down into two chunks including 543 and 1234. Why this works is because chunking helps in breaking down long, irrelevant pieces of information into meaningful bits, thus helping short-term memory remember the chunks better.
The word chunking was coined by American psychologist George A. Miller in his paper, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Published in 1956, this theory applied the concepts of information technology to psychology.
With a number of studies to back up his claim, Miller claimed that short-term memory had the ability to utilize "seven plus-or-minus two" chunks. With numbers the memory span is around nine, which falls to around five when it comes to monosyllabic English words.

Chunking to Improve Memory

To chunk the information there are various methods that can be used like grouping, organizing and pattern-finding. The choice is often based on the information that needs to be grouped. Here are some common examples in which we group information.

Numerical Chunking

Chunking of numbers is one of the easiest ways to memorize them. For example, chunking numbers to remember phone numbers.

Example: 472627607
Grouped as: Groups of three like 472, 627, 607 or groups of two and three 47, 26, 27, 607.
The chunks are then memorized. The retention is facilitated further if there can be some link between the numbers. For example, a number like 7081984 can be broken down as 7/08/1984 to indicate the date, month and year. Similarly, the more relations and explorations that you find the better are the chances of remembering the numbers.

Chunking Letters

Like numbers, letters can also be clubbed into small chunks.

Grouped as: X IBM SAT MTV PHD X
In this case, the six chunks are far easier to remember than 14 random letters. You can improve this further by finding a pattern between the sentences. So, I SAT for MTV before PHD is not a meaningful sentence but it is a great way to remember information.

Chunking Words

Words or a list of things can be memorized by grouping them into an acronym using the first letter of the words.
Example: If your shopping list includes figs, apples, onions, tomatoes, bananas, and potatoes.
Grouped as: FAOTBP (Using the first letters of the items in the list)
Grouped as: Organize the first letters of the fruits and then the vegetables, and then create chunks like FAB TOP.

You can further improve retention by grouping them as 3 fruits and 3 vegetables.

Effectiveness of Chunking

So, is chunking effective in improving short-term memory? According to Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor it is. In his book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning he recognizes the effectiveness of pattern-recognition for memory retention and consciousness.
According to Bor, chunking allows us to tap into the limits of our working memory (which is the temporary storage for essential and primitive forms of information). He goes on to give a fascinating example of an undergraduate volunteer in a psychology experiment with an average IQ and memory capacity.
At the beginning of the experiment he was able to remember roughly 7 numbers in sequence, but in a period of 20 months he was able to increase the limit to 80 numbers in sequence using chunking for memory improvement. How did he do it? In Bor's words,
This volunteer happened to be a keen track runner, and so his first thought was to see certain number groups as running times, for instance, 3492 would be transformed into 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds, around the world-record time for running the mile.
In other words, he was using his memory for well-known number sequences in athletics to prop up his working memory. This strategy worked very well, and he rapidly more than doubled his working memory capacity to nearly 20 digits.
The process of chunking, which includes the search for chunks, memorizing them and recalling or using the chunks that have been built up, can vastly increase the limits of not only short-term memory but with constant practice even long-term memory. This strategy is used by many, including many memory champions.
Although its role as a tool for memory improvement is well-known, chunking or rather pattern recognition is believed to be the source of human creativity.
According to Bor, Consciousness and chunking allow us to turn the dull sludge of independent episodes in our lives into a shimmering, dense web, interlinked by all the myriad patterns we spot. Thus, with chunking we can not only see connections but also feed our creativity and give our brain the much-needed boost it requires to remember things effectively.