Dr. B's Blog

Being an expert isn't all that great.

For a long time, psychologists have known about the heuristics people use to make sense of their worlds. One of the better known is the idea of chunking information into to smaller, more manageable pieces of information. Try memorizing this number (no cheating!):

8 2 8 4 3 2 5 7 6 1

Some of the more astute among you might notice that's a 10-digit number with an area code somewhere in the vicinity of Asheville, NC (a beautiful place to visit if you ever get a chance!). So, you're probably ahead of the game.

We memorize a new 10-digit phone number by making chunks of 3, 3, and 4. That translates into a mental load of just 3 things you need to remember rather than the 10-digits you might try to memorize. This is great for information that we're familiar with and translates into useful mechanisms for learning.

Wired describes the phenomenon in other terms:

[T]hat talent wasn’t about memory – it was about perception. The grandmasters didn’t remember the board better than amateurs. Rather, they saw the board better, instantly translating the thirty-two chess pieces into a set of meaningful patterns. They didn’t focus on the white bishop or the black pawn, but instead grouped the board into larger strategies and structures, such as the French Defense or the Reti Opening.

I'm an avid NPR listener and everyday at 9:00 AM, they have the BBC World Service's broadcast. During this program, the host often calls for feedback from listeners and announces a string of numbers that I just can't get my head around. It's because they chunk the information differently. The host announces the numbers in a series of 2 digits at a time for that same 10-digit length phone number. But my brain can't handle the different presentation.

Wired goes on to say:

The problem with our cognitive chunks is that they’re fully formed – an inflexible pattern we impose on the world – which means they tend to be resistant to sudden changes, such as a street detour in central London. They also are a practiced habit, and so we tend to rely on them even when they might not be applicable. (A chess grandmaster has to be careful about applying his chess chunks to checkers.)

So, next time you're having a hard time committing something to memory, try thinking about it as a naive person. Use what Suzuki calls Beginner's Mind.