Chunk Like a Champion

I know I said (again) that I would post about sleep, but I lied. (Again.) 

There’s just too much to read! TOO MUCH! Like this amazing 80-page article! So the post on sleep will be next time, I promise (mebbe).  Just to sweeten the pot a little, though- the eventual sleep article will offer conclusive proof that morning people are mutants. Mutants! I knew it all along.

Important syllogistic distinction- all morning people are mutants, but not all mutants are morning people.
Important syllogistic distinction- all morning people are mutants, but not all mutants are morning people.

So this post is going to talk about memory (surprise!) and chunking- which is nothing at all like chucking, dunking, or funky, regardless of what my octogenarian iPhone may think. (Go home, iPhone. You’re drunk.)

Now, to review- what is memory? Well, as prominent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, the mind works when “[b]rain cells fire in patterns.” And ‘patterns’… well, that’s pretty much what a chunk is.

I know- post over, right?

Yeah, right.

So- what are chunks, how do we form them, and how can we access them more efficiently and effectively? Unsurprisingly, there are a Whole Buncha Scientists™ who have some thoughts on these matters.


What are chunks?

So remember all those days ago when I posted about memory? Encoding, storage, retrieval… sad dude with a computer head… any of this sounding familiar? Anyway, I likened short-term and long-term memory to RAM and ROM (implicitly), and emphasized that long-term memory relied on repetition, utilization, and cross-referencing. (Note the repetition, utilization, and cross-referencing that are happening before your very eyes. We practice what we preach here.)

Chunks, then, though they may be a new (and vaguely off-putting) term, are not a totally foreign concept. “Chunk” is just another word for a bit of information that you relate to other bits, creating a concept. This concept then makes it easier to relate the information to other concepts you already know.

Neurologically speaking, chunking is when certain neurons in the brain get used to firing together, allowing you to think certain thoughts more smoothly and efficiently. (Guida et al. call it binding or “encoding the relations among stimuli that co-occur.”)

Neurons linking into a chunk, and then connecting to other chunks to form systemic chunks (i.e. a knowledge base)
Neurons linking into a chunk, and then connecting to other chunks to form systemic chunks (i.e. a knowledge base)


How do we form chunks?

This idea of the neurological chunk was actually introduced way back in 1956 by a scientist named G.A. Miller. Have you ever heard that common knowledge saying that humans can only hold seven things in their memory at any one time? (You may have also heard “four,” “five,” or “nine.” Common knowledge is commonly unknowing like that.) The saying dates back to this Miller guy… though what he actually said was that it was “seven plus or minus two.” (Which kind of explains the discrepancy.)

Anyway. His main point was that short-term storage is not completely rigid in structure (not like a computer’s RAM), and is amenable to certain neurological linking processes that can expand its capacity beyond its usual restraints. It does this by organizing “perceptual, cognitive, or behavioral sequential activity” into groups of sequences, sub-sequences, sub-sub-sequences, etc. (See: Rabinovich et al.)

So chunks are bits of info, organized into sub-sub-, sub-, and regular old-sequences, that link to other bits of organized info in your ROM-noggin to make it easier on your RAM! Whew. Aren’t you glad I cleared that all up for you?

Functionally, though, it makes sense. A baby first has to learn that his hand is actually part of his body (a process that involves epic amusement on the part of the parent/s). This sensorimotor awareness is one chunk of information.

Nom nom nom
Nom nom nom

Then he figures out that his hands and fingers can press different things at different times (a process that involves epic baby-proofing scrambling on the part of the parent/s). This becomes another chunk, linked to the first.

Fun with fingers
Fun with fingers

Eventually- with a whole lotta other chunks coming into play- he can learn to play Chopin.

Lang Lang on Piano
Chunking gives you wings!

Would he be able to play Chopin without this chunking process? No- because he’d be too busy trying to remember that his hands were part of his body and his fingers could move separately and there was a black splotch called a note and that that note had a meaning and something about sound and whoa is that shiny… and eventually his short-term memory would overload and he’d be back to gnawing on his own hand and wondering why it hurt.

The glory of chunks is that they allow our working memory to reach down and into our long-term memory, and draw upon concepts that enrich our understanding of whatever it is we’re trying to learn. Eventually, the chunks become so accustomed to firing together that they do so automatically, and become the foundation to which other, newer, chunks can attach. This is your knowledge base.


Chunk Like a Champion Today!

( I couldn't resist. If you've been to Notre Dame, you'll understand. If you haven't, go watch "Rudy." Now. I don't care if you don't like sports movies- this one's got wee!Sean Astin and it's adorable.)
( I couldn’t resist. If you’ve been to Notre Dame, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, go watch “Rudy.” Now. I don’t care if you don’t like sports movies- this one’s got wee!Sean Astin and it’s adorable.)

Dr. Barba Oakley recommends a three-step process to more effectively and efficiently move chunks from short-term to long-term memory:

  • Concentrate
  • Comprehend
  • Carry out

…Okay, what she actually recommends is focus, understanding, and practice, but the liberal arts major in me craves alliteration. It’s a personal failing. Besides, doesn’t “The Three Cs of Chunking” have a nicer ring than “The FUP of Chunking”?



The first step is to focus your undivided attention on the information you want to remember. Notice the underline? That means it’s important. Undivided.

This means you cannot practice your piccolo piece while thinking about cat memes, or try to memorize your vocab list while The Big Bang Theory plays in the background. (Big Bang is another thing that deserves undivided attention.) If you try to multitask, your working memory will ignore your pure intentions and try to catalog everything that’s going on around you- even if you don’t notice it- which will leave you fewer mental resources to bring to bear on the task at hand.

Don’t believe me? Studies by Prof. Clifford Nass of Stanford University have shown that self-described multi-taskers “performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks.” This might be because people who are distracted encode new information in a half-conscious system of “habit memory,” as Columbia scientist Karen Foerde hypothesized; while focused learners save the information to their long-term, declarative memory system. Learners are left feeling as though they know the material- and even able to repeat it to a certain extent- but unable to retain the information long-term, or connect it to any other pieces of their neurological jigsaw puzzle.

Prof. Barbara Oakley calls this the “illusion of competence”- the feeling that you get when you’re having a study party with friends and so totally own the test material, but that leads to you sitting at the test the next day remembering nothing but the brand of gummy bears you snarfed down. Use some of the techniques in the 10 Good Habits of Studying to help get past these pitfalls. I find recall and mini-testing to be solid techniques for separating the men from the boys… or the non-gender-discriminatory memories from the habits…

So turn off your smartphone and reorient your brain. Remember- the goal is not just to absorb the new information; you want to connect these new chunklets to preexisting patterns in your brain.



The key to comprehension is context (more c’s!). But really. In order to hold your tentative new memory traces together, you have to link it to other things you already know.

It’s like that “a-HA!” moment when you’ve been trying and trying to think of that artist (who was kind of like Warhol, but not really at all, and don’t you know what I’m talking about guys- the dude with the clowny balloon animals?) and then your co-worker mentions how critters got into her garbage last night (and isn’t that a pain, I told Martin we should get a cat), and out of the blue, you scream “JEFF KOONS!”

And everyone turns around and stares.

It’s kind of like that.

Warholy cartoony balloon animal- am I wrong?
Warholy cartoony balloon animal- am I wrong?

Barbara Oakley explains it better. She notes that a good chunk is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle; it has edges that enable you to connect it to other pieces that are already in your knowledge base. Sometimes these other pieces might be related (like adding information on chunking to what you already know about memory), but sometimes they may seem unrelated (like connecting Jeff Koons to raccoons, just because they kind of sound alike). These connections are important, because they allow you to draw connection between concepts and more easily retrieve them when you want to remember. Without links, your chunk is less like a puzzle piece and more like a flat coin, unable to connect link to anything else and thus much more difficult to retrieve.


Carry Out

(On second thought, this alliteration thing is just making me crave curry.)

The idea of comprehension and memory retrieval leads to the final step- practice. Practice, as Prof. Oakley reminds us, helps you understand not just how but when to use a chunk. (For example, knowledge of Jeff Koons would be more aptly applied to a discussion of art or consumerism or Jesus even clowns than a discussion of Martha’s woodland creature infestation.) With math, it will enable you to see the different types of problems to which an algorithm might be applied; in language, you may begin to pick up secondary meanings or connotations that you wouldn’t notice just from learning the word.

Moreover, practice helps you broaden the networks of neurons related to your chunk. As Steven Pinkers might say, it helps certain patterns of neurons become accustomed to firing at the same time.

Whew. And that, my friends, is how chunking becomes memory.





Glenn D,“Divided Attention,” February 28, 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Guida, A., Gobet, F., Tardieu, H., & Nicolas, S. (2012). How chunks, long-term working memory and templates offer a cognitive explanation for neuroimaging data on expertise acquisition: A two-stage framework. Brain and Cognition, 79(3), 221-244. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.01.010.

Miller G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychol. Rev. 63, 81-97 10.1037/h0043158 [PubMed: 13310704]

Oakley B, class notes via Coursera.



Wolverine gif: ©?

Neurons firing together: © Kevin Mendez, 2014. Coursera- learning how to learn.

Baby at the outlet: © Eprom.

Lang Lang at the Piano: © Neale Haynes, 2010.

Chunk like a champion: ©Notre Dame, originally. Probably. Modified, natch.

Jeff Koons – Balloon Dog (Magenta). Via Wikipedia –



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s