Chunking: The Sweet Key to Better Thinking

In a 1974 paper, Herbert A Simon asks: “How big is a chunk?”  Simon was an extraordinary character: a political scientist who made important contributions to decision theory, cognitive science and artificial intelligence. He won the Nobel Prize for economics and the Turing Prize for his contributions to computer science.

Simon’s paper is based on a simple but important intuition. We know that the human working memory can only retain about 5 pieces of information at any one time. But what do we mean by a “piece of information”? A single letter, a word, a phrase, a sentence? In Simon’s view the answer lies in the mind of the beholder: whatever for you is a unitary piece of information counts for your quota of 5.

That could mean 5 randomly assorted letters, such as d,c,z,m,a. Or 5 words such as fox, anxious, dropped, quickly, but. Or five phrases such as just in time, bye for now, quite nice, perfectly stupid, what a pity. Simon calls this unit of information a “chunk.”

Nature’s Brilliant Solution

What does this mean practically? If you want a clear mind, you should aim to handle only about  5 chunks at a time. More than that, and you’ll clutter your head with too much stuff. But we live in a complex world, where we have to manage reams of data from every imaginable source. This means that the better we can package that data into chunks, the more we can handle.

Nature has given us a solution: categorizing. In other words, grouping lots of details under a single heading. This is the very essence of chunking, and it’s a built-in function, so rudimentary that it appears in small children and even in animals. Why does the brain spontaneously categorize, or chunk, information? It might seem a dumb question, but you can imagine a computer of such massive power (perhaps one of the new quantum devices) that it wouldn’t need to categorize anything: it could process each individual data point simultaneously. I think we categorize precisely because we have a data limit built into our working memory.

Another way to see this is in terms of energy conservation. We know that the brain is extraordinarily efficient in its uses of energy. It does the work of a super-computer on the wattage needed to run a single electric lightbulb. It seems to me likely that evolution has led to a brain design that instinctively minimizes our cognitive burden. Categorizing — grouping lots of detail in a few concepts — perfectly meets this requirement. Dealing with a few concepts instead of a mass of detail reduces our mental fuel consumption.

Up Your Chunking Skills

You can see from this why categorizing lies at the core of human thinking. It’s only a small step to realize that learning how to enhance our categorizing skills will reap significant rewards. Yes, chunking is a natural function of the brain. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it with intentional practice, just as we can improve so many other built-in abilities nature has given us, from singing to jumping to seeing in the dark.

Categorizing is the heart of the Braincat process, and one effect of frequently using this tool is that you will automatically improve your categorizing skills. The benefits will spill over into all your thinking activities, even when you’re far from your keyboard. You’ll become increasingly adept at clustering lots of details under a single heading, freeing your mind to see more and create more. A good tool doesn’t just help you to do things, it teaches you to do things better.

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