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Chunking: Reducing Complex Skills To Simple Tasks

When we were quite young, being able to read wasn’t so natural to us as it is now. In the beginning, we were struggling to distinguish each letter from the other. Later on, we could read syllable after syllable, and eventually, we were able to read and comprehend words as a whole. Now, we can read big passages of text (like this article) quickly and effortlessly. The process behind this evolution is called chunking.

Chunking is a fundamental process of the human brain, ands thus it applies to everyone and to everything humans can get good at. There are multiple examples of chunking originating from our childhood, apart from reading. It is the same for walking or putting a T-shirt on. Tasks that were once hard and we needed help in, we now perform with a single thought, like “I want to get dressed”.

What is chunking?

Chunking is the process that allows us to connect smaller pieces of information into bigger blocks, or chunks (thus the name chunking). The brain combines smaller neural patterns that already exist into larger ones, and each large chunk can then be activated all at once. This way skills, like reading, that once seemed complex and were comprised of multiple neural patterns, later become simple ones.

To illustrate chunking, imagine a jigsaw puzzle. In the beginning, you only have separate pieces, which on their own provide no meaning or context. As you work on the puzzle, you create small clusters of pieces (think chunks), which contain more meaning and further help you complete the puzzle. As you progress even further, you get to a point that only a couple of pieces are left out (think details), and eventually you get a complete puzzle.

The progression of building a puzzle

The progression of building a puzzle. Throughout the process the context becomes apparent. This is the same process like building chunks.

The puzzle analogy shows that chunking is a process with multiple stages. From separate pieces to larger and larger chunks, it is an ongoing process. Every stage corresponds to a better level of comprehension and is an integral component in getting to the next stage.

Why is chunking important?

Before diving into the actual reasons, we need to briefly define the 2 types of temporary memory, namely the working and the short-term memory, as there is a very important connection between those and chunking, especially in learning.

The working memory is what allows us to make sense of what we’re currently experiencing. It draws upon existing neural connections and incoming information, and works in very close collaboration with our short-term memory (there is an ongoing debate on whether these are the same thing, but I choose to keep them separate here for conceptual reasons).

The short-term memory is where our brain briefly (20-30 seconds) stores new information, before either forgetting it or committing it to the long-term memory. Its size is limited, conversely to the long-term memory, and it amounts to approximately 7 (+/- 2) slots. There is some newer research that supports that this number is closer to 4 slots.

Connection with the working and short-term memory

As we are learning something new, our working memory gets overwhelmed by all the new information and is unable to hold it all in. As a result, we struggle to comprehend. But, as the information gets chunked, the same amount of information combined into one chunk occupies only 1 slot in our working and short-term memories, allowing for more information to be held. That not only allows us to be less overwhelmed by a task, as we have plenty of slots open, but also to bring more information into the equation, eventually forming even larger chunks.

For example, when you first started (or will start) learning how to drive, you were overwhelmed by all the things you had to keep in mind. The gas, the brake, the clutch, the gears, the wheel, checking the mirrors, it was all too much. But, after a little while, it all became much easier. Now you can drive while talking on the phone or thinking about something completely irrelevant. Driving has been chunked into one big chunk, freeing you working and short-term memories for other thoughts.

Chunks can become very, very large

The amazing thing about chunking skills is that the chunks can become really large. As we saw in the driving example, a whole skill can be reduced to just 1 chunk. That can be true in even more complex skills, like math. In the beginning, simple addition and multiplication were hard, but a Ph.D. in math can utilize complex mathematical concepts rather easily. The truth is, though, that they probably still have a long way to go. As the complex mathematical analyses are reduced to one chunk, more information and concepts occupy the remaining short-term memory slots, allowing for more advanced connections and eventually even deeper comprehension to appear.

In creating very large chunks, there is another process that plays an important role. While being able to hold more information in your short-term memory allows for the creation of larger chunks, this process involves only the focused mode of the brain. Spending time away from the problem, either awake or sleeping, allows for the diffuse mode of the brain to kick in, letting the brain connect information more freely. The more the diffuse mode intertwines with the focused mode, the better and deeper the understanding, and thus the bigger the chunks. While this process can happen deliberately, the overall time a person occupies themselves with a specific subject is a major factor in creating very large chunks.

Transfer: Connecting chunks from various skills

Another great attribute of chunks is that they can be connected between different fields. People like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have utilized this to achieve the impossible. Throughout their lives, these 3 gentlemen (and many more successful people), have spent an enormous amount of time reading and learning, allowing their brains to create amazingly large chunks and mental models. They have then applied their knowledge and understanding in their businesses, leading to extraordinary results.

Connecting chunks from various disciplines allows for better and wider comprehension and for the transfer of expertise from one skill to another. The best way to transfer is, again, through the usage of the diffuse mode. For many years, Bill Gates went into seclusion for two, one-week “Think Weeks” a year. There he would, distraction-free, alternate between the focused and the diffuse mode in order to come up with creative ideas and build up robust chunks of understanding. A lot of the innovations that evolved out of Microsoft came from these “Think Weeks”.

Another great way is through the use of analogies and comparisons while learning. Analogies are a great way to connect different types of information and thus create a bridge to build chunks and further understand new information.

How to form chunks deliberately

1) Focus on the information you want to chunk

The first step is to actually get the information into your brain. To achieve that, you should utilize the focused mode of thinking. The most important thing is to try and avoid distractions as they can really hinder your learning and chunking process. In my articles on deliberate practice, spaced repetition and how to beat procrastination I provide extensive guidelines on how to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of this stage, while minimizing distractions and other detrimental factors.

2) Understand the information

Just learning new information without connecting it to pre-existing knowledge does not help you understand. You should use the focused and diffuse mode interchangeably to assist your brain in connecting the new information with existing chunks. Without understanding, you can still create a chunk, but it’ll be like a puzzle piece that does not fit anywhere; pretty useless.

The best way to understand something is not to reread it multiple times. Rather, you should try to perform the task yourself. We often understand something when we listen to it (like a lecture), but when we are asked to actually perform (e.g. solve a problem) we find out we haven’t fully comprehended the concept. To avoid this, after learning something new, try to immediately put it to practice, preferably unassisted.

3) Get the context

An important part of building a chunk is to understand not only how to use it, but when to use it as well. This way you’ll be able to utilize the particular chunk right when you need it to either perform, or to use it as the foundation to expand your learning.

Skim the material ahead of time to get a basic understanding of what it is about, and after consuming spend a minute or two to comprehend the applicability of the new information in the subject you are learning. Sometimes it might be obvious, but this isn’t always the case.

4) Give it time!!!

What I see most people expect is to immediately understand complex subjects after they’ve just learned them. This is not possible, at least not with the appropriate chunks already in place. As we saw above, you need to give time to yourself to consciously and subconsciously form the necessary connections and chunks. By practicing consistently and effectively you can optimize the learning process, but it will still take time until larger chunks have formed. That is true especially for advanced concepts.

Chunking in memorizing

A little further from what we’ve talked about until now, there is another way chunking is used in connection with our short-term memory and its capacity. As we have limited short-term memory slots, our brain unconsciously uses various tricks to accommodate it. For instance, we don’t try to recall a phone number digit by digit, instead, we split it into chunks. A US phone number is not presented as “3308148955” but rather as “(330)-814-8955” for that same reason, but, even if it weren’t, our brain would do the same on its own.

This is the same concept at work like before, just applied at a different point. Our brain gets unconnected information and builds bigger but manageable chunks (1 digit to 2-3 at a time), in order to fit more in the short-term memory. In another example, we often split a big grocery list into groups by category, like dairy and vegetables, in order to more easily remember them.

To utilize this in your own life, try to chunk all incoming information into manageable chunks. For instance, when reading text, try to build chunks of 3-5 words to improve comprehension. These small chunks will become the fundamental block for both memorizing the concept you are learning about and eventually building further understanding on the subject.

Conclusion

Chunking is an integral part of the way our brain works, and we’ve already utilized it a lot in our learning, unconsciously. To further improve our learning effectiveness and efficiency we should deliberately try to build larger chunks more consistently. To do that, follow the steps above while remaining conscious of the process.

Call to Action

Just by reading this article you will quickly become conscious of the chunking process in your brain. As you learn to deliberately utilize it, you will face various achievements and/or struggles, which I’d love to hear about. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

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