Chunking and Thinking

Maria Popova in "Brainpickings" recently reviewed and commented on Daniel Bor's new book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning. Popova's essay argues that the key is chunking, "... combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful." Quoting from Bor:

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. 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.

Popova gives an example from Bor's book of a psychology experiment volunteer who over time developed great memorization skills via chunking numbers into groups:

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 next breakthrough some months later occurred when he realized he could combine each running time into a superstructure of 3 or 4 running times — and then group these superstructures together again. Interestingly, the number of holders he used never went above his initial capacity of just a handful of items. He just learned to cram more and more into each item in a pyramidal way, with digits linked together in 3s or 4s, and then those triplets or quadruplets of digits linked together as well in groups of 3, and so on. One item-space, one object in working memory, started holding a single digit, but after 20 months of practice, could contain as much as 24 digits.

And chunking does far more than just compress information for storage and recall. According to Bor, "... it is not merely a faithful servant of working memory — instead it is the secret master of this online store, and the main purpose of consciousness." Bor also postulates that "Some of our greatest insights can be gleaned from moving up another level and noticing that certain patterns relate to others, which on first blush may appear entirely unconnected — spotting patterns of patterns, say (which is what analogies essentially are)."

(cf. CreativeDevices (2001-01-01), ReadingsOnThinkingAndLiving (2001-10-01), PyramidBuilding (2004-02-21), ChunkyConceptualization (2004-08-21), HigherLevelLanguage (2007-08-17), Brainpickings Tidbits (2012-07-31), ...) - ^z - 2012-09-16