Most of us are able to store only about four to seven different items in our short-term memory. One way to get past this limit is to use a technique called chunking. By grouping several items into one larger whole, you'll be able to remember much more.
Chunking involves creating something more meaningful — and therefore memorable — from seemingly random bits of information. One example is if you need to remember a list of things — such as buying figs, lettuce, oranges, apples and tomatoes — you can create a word out of the first letters ("FLOAT"), which is easier to remember than the individual items. If you've ever tried to remember a phone number by making a word (or words) out of the letters on the phone's dial pad, you've used chunking.
The Atlantic recently highlighted the value of chunking based on the ideas in the book The Ravenous Brain by neuroscientist Daniel Bor. In one study, an undergraduate volunteer was able to remember an 80-digit sequence 20 months after learning it by using the chunking technique. The volunteer had been a track runner, so he grouped numbers as running times: 3492, for example, became 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds.
Giving meaning to numbers and letters is also what's at play behind the strategies used by memory champions.
Chunking isn't just a memory technique though. Bor argues that this pattern-recognition is the source of human creativity. We naturally seek to create and find patterns and connect disparate things together.
The takeaway is to try to see the connections and make something more meaningful out of the parts you're trying to remember, and practise pattern-recognition to feed your creativity and boost your brain:
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. It becomes a positive feedback loop, making the detection of new connections even easier, and creates a domain ripe for understanding how things actually work, of reaching that supremely powerful realm of discerning the mechanism of things. At the same time, our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective — and intelligent — than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.
Using Pattern Recognition to Enhance Memory and Creativity [The Atlantic]
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