In Defense of Chunking

There has been a good deal of discussion on the brain training blog about the use of strategies to improve training performance.  One such strategy is called “chunking”– replacing a sequence of letters, numbers or grid positions with something representative.  So the letter sequence P, K, G we could remember as the word “package”.  Generally we advise against the use of complex strategies since it reduces the need for the brain to stretch and remember more items.  But at the same time we realize that most people will resort to such strategies from time to time.

Today I read a piece in the Atlantic that proposes the idea that learning to become better “chunkers” could be a valuable brain training activity. The article discusses some of the ideas in a new book by Daniel Bor (“The Ravenous Brain”).  Here is what Bor has to say about chunking:

Although [chunking] can vastly increase the practical limits of working memory, 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.


There are three straightforward sides to the chunking process — the search for chunks, the noticing and memorizing of those chunks, and the use of the chunks we’ve already built up. The main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover these structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from consciousness.

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns…

These insights help explain both the value of chunking and the advantages of being better chunkers, as well as the value of focus and working memory!

I would still not recommend chunking as a habitual strategy when training with MindSparke.  Although neither would I say that would should avoid it altogether.  It will happen naturally. The great thing about Stage 4 of the training is that it exercises and strengthens our ability to store, pattern and recall pieces of information that we would not normally need to “chunk” in our daily lives (colors and shapes, for instance).  This is fantastic training for the brain.

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