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Chunking (psychology)

In cognitive psychology and mnemonics, chunking refers to a strategy for making more efficient use of short-term memory by recoding information. More generally, Herbert Simon has used the term chunk to indicate long-term memory structures that can be used as units of perception and meaning, and chunking as the learning mechanisms leading to the acquisition of these chunks.


Magic Number Seven

The word chunking comes from a famous 1956 paper by George A. Miller, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two : Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. At a time when information theory was beginning to be applied in psychology, Miller observed that whereas some human cognitive tasks fit the model of a "channel capacity" characterized by a roughly constant capacity in bits, short-term memory did not. A variety of studies could be summarized by saying that short term memory had a capacity of about "seven plus-or-minus two" chunks. Miller wrote that "With binary items the span is about nine and, although it drops to about five with monosyllabic English words, the difference is far less than the hypothesis of constant information would require. The span of immediate memory seems to be almost independent of the number of bits per chunk, at least over the range that has been examined to date." Miller acknowledged that "we are not very definite about what constitutes a chunk of information."

Miller noted that according to this theory, it should be possible to effectively increase short-term memory for low-information-content items by mentally recoding them into a smaller number of high-information-content items. "A man just beginning to learn radio-telegraphic code hears each dit and dah as a separate chunk. Soon he is able to organize these sounds into letters and then he can deal with the letters as chunks. Then the letters organize themselves as words, which are still larger chunks, and he begins to hear whole phrases." Thus, a telegrapher can effectively "remember" several dozen dits and dahs as a single phrase. Naive subjects can only remember about nine binary items, but Miller reports a 1954 experiment in which people were trained to listen to a string of binary digits and (in one case) mentally group them into groups of five, recode each group into a name (e.g "twenty-one" for 10101), and remember the names. With sufficient drill, people found it possible to remember as many as forty binary digits. Miller wrote:

"It is a little dramatic to watch a person get 40 binary digits in a row and then repeat them back without error. However, if you think of this merely as a mnemonic trick for extending the memory span, you will miss the more important point that is implicit in nearly all such mnemonic devices. The point is that recoding is an extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information that we can deal with".

Chunking in Motor Learning

Chunking is a flexible way of learning. Karl Lashley, way back in 1951, in his classic paper on serial order (Lashley, 1951) argued that the sequential responses that appear to be organized in linear and flat fashion concealed an underlying hierarchical structure. This was demonstrated in motor control by Rosenbaum et al (1983). Thus sequences can consist of sub-sequences and these can in turn consist of sub-sub sequences. Hierarchical representations of sequences have an edge over linear representations. They combine efficient local action at low hierarchical levels while maintaining the guidance of an overall structure. While the representation of a linear sequence is simple from storage point of view, there can be potential problems during retrieval. For instance, if there is a break in the sequence chain, subsequent elements will become inaccessible. On the other hand, a hierarchical representation would have multiple levels of representation. A break in the link between lower level nodes does not render any part of the sequence inaccessible, since the control nodes (chunk nodes) at the higher level would still be able to facilitate access to the lower level nodes.

Chunks in motor learning are identified by pauses between successive actions (Terrace, 2001). He also suggested that during the sequence performance stage (after learning), subjects download list items as chunks during pauses. Terrace also argued for an operational definition of chunks suggesting a distinction between the notions of input and output chunks from the ideas of short-term and long-term memory. Input chunks reflect the limitation of working memory during the encoding of new information i.e., how new information is stored in long-term memory, and how it is retrieved during subsequent recall. Output chunks reflect the organization of over-learned motor programs that are generated on-line in working memory. Recently Sakai et al (2003) showed that subjects spontaneously organize a sequence into a number of chunks across few sets and that these chunks were distinct among subjects tested on the same sequence. Sakai et al (2003) showed that performance of a shuffled sequence was poorer when the chunk patterns were disrupted than when the chunk patterns were preserved. Chunking Patterns also seem to depend on the effectors used.

Memory training systems

The phenomenon of chunking as a memory mechanism can be observed in the way we group numbers and information in our day-to-day life. For example, when recalling a number such as 14101946, if we group the numbers as 14, 10 and 1946, we are creating a mnemonic for this number as a date, month and year. An illustration of the limited capacity of working memory as suggested by Miller can be seen from the following example: While recalling a mobile phone number such as 9849523450, we might break this into 98 495 234 50. Thus, instead of remembering 10 separate digits that is beyond the "seven plus-or-minus two", we are remembering 4 groups of numbers.

Various kinds of memory training systems and mnemonics include training and drill in specially-designed recoding or chunking schemes. Such systems existed before Miller's paper, but there was no convenient term to describe the general strategy. The term "chunking" is now often used in reference to these systems.

Chunking as the learning of long-term memory structures

This usage derives from Miller’s (1956) idea of chunking as grouping, but the emphasis is now on long-term memory rather than on short-term memory. A chunk can then be defined as "a collection of elements having strong associations with one another, but weak associations with elements within other chunks" (Gobet et al., 2001, p. 236). Chase and Simon (1973), and later Gobet, Retschitzki and de Voogt (2004), showed that chunking could explain several phenomena linked to expertise in chess. Several successful computational models of learning and expertise have been developed using this idea, such as EPAM (Elementary Perceiver and Memorizer) and CHREST (Chunk Hierarchy and REtrieval STructures).


  • Miller, G. A. (1956), The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
  • Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.
  • Gobet, F., de Voogt, A. J., & Retschitzki, J. (2004). Moves in mind: The psychology of board games. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
  • Gobet, F., Lane, P. C. R., Croker, S., Cheng, P. C. H., Jones, G., Oliver, I., & Pine, J.M. (2001). Chunking mechanisms in human learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 236-243.
  • Bapi, R. S., Pammi, V. S. C., Miyapuram, K. P., and Ahmed (2005). Investigation of sequence learning: A cognitive and computational neuroscience perspective. Current Science, 89:1690-1698.
  • Lashley, K. S. (1951). The problem of serial order in behavior. In Jeffress, L. A., editor, Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior. Wiley, New York.
  • Rosenbaum, D. A., Kenny, S. B., and Derr, M. A. (1983). Hierarchical control of rapid movement sequences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 9:86-102.
  • Sakai, K., Kitaguchi, K., and Hikosaka, O. (2003). Chunking during human visuomotor sequence learning. Experimental Brain Research, 152:229-242.
  • Terrace, H. (2001). Chunking and serially organized behavior in pigeons, monkeys and humans. In Cook, R. G., editor, Avian visual cognition. Comparative Cognition Press, Medford, MA.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Chunking_(psychology)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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