Not Exactly Rocket Science

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhich of these strings of letters is easier to remember:  QKJITJGPI or BBCITVCNN?

Chances are, you chose the latter string, where the nine letters are the combined names of three television networks. This neatly illustrates a fundamental property of human memory – that we remember long strings of information more easily if we can break them down into bite-sized chunks. In this case, a nine-letter string can be divided into three lots of three letters. You probably use similar strategies for remembering telephone numbers, credit card details, or post codes.

i-d7b052ed203814dde3697f4c66cc7682-Babybook.jpgNow, Lisa Feigenson and Justin Halberda from Johns Hopkins University have found that infants just 14 months old can use the same technique, delightfully known as “chunking” to increase the limited scope of their memories. Their work suggests that this technique isn’t something we learn through education or experience – it’s more likely to be a basic part of the way our minds process information.

You can consciously use chunking to improve your recollection, but we all do it unconsciously to a large degree. In fact, the technique is the reason why we are rarely aware of the pitiful capacity of our working memory – the amount of information we can hold and work with for short periods of time.

For the longest time, psychologists believed that this mental workspace maxed out at seven items ; adults who saw a flashing array of letters or digits could only remember about seven at a time. But even this score is an overestimate. Later experiments which specifically set out to block chunking showed that adults can only store four items at most, while children and the elderly can only cope with three.

Toy quest

To demonstrate that infants can surpass these limits, Feigenson and Halbarda showed 44 babies a selection of four toys. These were hidden in a box, and the children were allowed to search for them. In some trials, all of the toys were still waiting in the box to be discovered but in others, the sneaky experimenters has secretly hidden two of them elsewhere. If the infants could successfully hold four objects in mind, they should continue to search if they expected to find four toys and had only uncovered two. Likewise, if they expected four toys and found four in the box, they should stop searching quickly.

Feigenson has used this method before and found that infants search for the correct amount of time when one, two or three items were at stake, but failed in trials involving four. In these experiments, it was the number of objects that mattered and not their desirability (the infants could no better remember four exciting toys than they could four boring white balls).

But this time, the four toys consisted of two pairs of identical objects and with this small tweak, the infants ‘passed’ the test. They spent significantly longer in their searches if one of each object was withheld, than if the box contained all four. That suggests that infants are capable of organising their memory for objects in a hierarchy.

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For familiar objects like cats and cars, the position of the objects didn’t matter – the pairs could be separated or interspersed and the infants still remembered to search for all four. But for items they had never seen before, like tanks and shrimp, they only searched for the appropriate length of time if the matching objects were placed next to each other (e.g. tank-tank-shrimp-shrimp versus tank-shrimp-tank-shrimp). So the infants can only chunk novel objects if they are grouped together in a systematic way that makes the similarities between them clearer.

Variations on a theme

In this first experiment, the pairs of objects were identical but a second test revealed that infants could still chunk effectively if they were given pairs that were conceptually similar but visually distinct – say, two different types of cars, or differently coloured cats. A third and much more difficult test confirmed the idea that infants were using conceptual abstract cues to group the objects together, and not just visual ones at that.  

This time, the infants saw not cars or cats, but four identical orange balls. The experimenters pointed at the balls in turn and excitedly gave them a label, often a made-up word like “Dax!” or “Blicket!”.  These arbitrary verbal labels were  the only pieces of information that the infants could use to categorise the balls, but categorise them they did. As with cats and cars, the infants spent longer searching for daxes and blickets if there were fewer than expected. As a control, Feigenson and Halberda showed that generic labels such as “Look at this!” or “Look at that!” had no effect.

The infants didn’t stop at four balls either – the art of chunking enabled them to remember a total of six. Using the same box-searching method, Feigenson and Halberda showed that infants could remember to search for six balls if these were presented as three groups of two, by placing the middle pair on a raised platform. But if all the balls were placed on the platform, the infants failed the searching test. Six balls is a lot – in previous experiments where chunking wasn’t an option, Feigenson found that infants could only remember three items at most. These new experiments double their previous top score.

i-d46bd99e960e04f2f599d01301681f93-Toys2.jpg

The infants’ exposed talents at recollection tell us that memory isn’t a biological hard drive that records a carbon copy of our experiences. Right from the first year of life, our brains efficiently reorganise information from the world around in a hierarchical way. Four items become two groups of two; six becomes three groups of two, and so on. This restructuring lets us store large amounts of information using a system that has an otherwise limited capacity, and it happens without any training and at an age before we learn to speak.

Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0709884105

Comments

  1. #1 Jon D
    July 15, 2008

    Funny.. first thing I did when you asked the question ‘Which of these strings of letters is easier to remember’ was look at which one had the most doubled up letters (BB and NN on either end of the string) from the first one and that C is the third and third last. I didnt even realise it was made up of familiar acronyms until you said so, just figured it’s easier to remember the 3 other letters between the C’s.
    Your way is much simpler :)

  2. #2 Jon D
    July 15, 2008

    err “(BB and NN on either end of the string) from the first one”
    that should have read ‘second one’

  3. #3 Ed Yong
    July 15, 2008

    Aha, but grouping the letters together is also a form of chunking isn’t it?

  4. #4 Ryan Morehead
    July 15, 2008

    I did a presentation on chunking for a general psych class I TA’d.

    I started by scrambling the letters of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and then telling the class that not only could I teach them how to remember all the letters but that most of them already knew them. Then I started assembling the chunks, and showing them how the word is just chunks upon chunks (shapes that make up a letter, letters that make up a syllable, syllables that make up the word etc.). I’m sure about the current state of the literature on chunking–other than the above–but I thought it was a good way to illustrate the idea.

    Most of them catch on in the second syllable. It’s fun to see ~20 year old students light up like little kids when they get a concept.

  5. #5 themadlolscientist
    July 15, 2008

    I’ve used “chunking” for most of my life, especially for remembering numbers, without realizing there was a word for it. It’s especially good for remembering numbers.

    Music is another great memory aid. One of the cool things my son learned in preschool was how to remember our phone number by singing it to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”:

    “My phone number’s xxx, xxx-xxxx.”

    D’oh! Of course! How obvious! Now I use that trick myself all the time.

  6. #6 Ian
    July 16, 2008

    My first thought was, “How does a city in central China help kids remember?”. Now I understand! Good blog!

    BTW, just what are you guys laughing at in the picture at left – the one below you looking disgustingly comfortable with your “inspiration”?!

  7. #7 Ed Yong
    July 16, 2008

    Ian – that was a prize-giving ceremony for the Telegraph science writing prize I won about a year ago. We were laughing at some joke or other during one of the speeches, but it’s a good moment because the leftmost people in the photo are Sir David Attenborough and Philip Campbell (from Nature), who I then got to have lunch with.

  8. #8 Skwee
    July 19, 2008

    & what’s the thing under “heh”?

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