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Ever heard that factoid that we can only think about 7 things at once? Well, it's really more like 5, plus or minus two. So how can we think, with only 5 slots in RAM?

The answer is chunking. Concepts and categories can be organized in many different ways. How you organize them affects the speed and ease with which you can think about them.

Say I'm trying to keep a phone number in short term memory. If the number is 546-9135, then it's going to be difficult. But if the number is 123-4567, it's going to be easy. Why the difference? The second number can be chunked, the first cannot. The first number takes seven slots or so. The second can be chunked into one slot: Numbers from one to seven.

How about 123-5813? No one but a mathematician would be able to use less than three slots for this one. (numbers from one to three/fifty-eight/thirteen). But if you can recognize that this is just the Fibbonaci sequence, it fits into one. So, expertise and experience help us to chunk better.

This is one reason why math problems get easier with practice.

Chunking was first introduced by Harvard psychologist George A. Miller in his article "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two", The Psychological Review, vol. 63, 1956. The article was called this because Miller's theory, backed up by piles of research, was that the short term memory could only remeber 7 units of information plus or minus two at a time. The idea followed that if you chunked information based on similarites you could take in more information at a time. Another idea was that if you tried to give anyone more then 9 peices information at a time to remeber it was pointless.

from the summary in The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two

" First, the span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember. By organizing the stimulus input simultaneously into several dimensions and successively into a sequence or chunks, we manage to break (or at least stretch) this informational bottleneck."

from the Superior Curriculum Project

"Chunking enhances working memory, not by increasing the number of items you can hold in working memory, but by increasing the size or complexity of those items."

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