In 1980, K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues published a fascinating experiment. They took a student of average intelligence, memory capacity, and IQ and had an experimenter test the limits of his memory.
The experimenter read a series of random numbers and then had the student recite them back in the exact order. If he was able to recite the numbers in the correct order, the experimenter would add another digit to the next random set. If he made a mistake, the next set of random numbers would be one digit shorter.
At the beginning of the experiment, the student proved his average intelligence and memory by only being able to memorize a sequence of about 7 numbers. This also confirmed George Miller’s earlier theory that an average human can only hold 7 items (+/- 2) in their working memory at a time.
The experiment was repeated, 4 days a week, for almost two years.
20 months later, the student who began with an average memory, just like you and me, could now memorize a sequence of numbers 80 digits long. Imagine 8 people telling you their phone number (including area code) and being able to recite it back perfectly all at once.
How did the student achieve such a dramatic increase in the ability of his short-term memory? The answer can be found by analyzing the concept of chunking.
What is chunking?
Chunking is the act of breaking a component into smaller “chunks” of related information. This very sentence you are reading is composed of individual letters that have been “chunked” together to form words and a sentence.
Every skill is composed of chunks that aggregate to form the greater whole. For example, if you want to learn how to swing a golf club, you need to learn several different things: how to grip the club, how to position your feet, the proper stance, how to bend your elbow in the backswing, how to follow through, where to focus your eyes during the swing, how to retrieve your golf ball from the woods, etc.
It would be impossible to learn everything at once since our working memory can only hold about seven items of information at once. So, decompressing the skill into bite-sized chunks and mastering them one at a time until the act becomes unconscious is an effective way of learning.
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