Using Chunking Memory To Improve Your Memory Retention

Updated December 11, 2018

Reviewer Avia James

Everyone's memory slacks from time to time, but if you're finding that your memory isn't what it used to be or, otherwise, trying to figure out ways to cram before an important test, then chunking might be helpful. Chunking is a very simple process whereby information is broken down into manageable "chunks" so that it's easier to remember. A great way to think of this is that what you're trying to remember is like a slice of pizza; you wouldn't try and eat the whole slice in one bite, but instead, you would take one bite at a time, until it is all gone. Short term memory is very limited,keeping too much in there, is likely to be forgotten. By chunking, you improve the amount of information you can remember because each "chunk" counts as separate.

Think about your phone number. You likely have an area code and then a longer series of numbers. If your entire phone number is 9097463526 then you'll automatically break it up to 909-746-3526. Doing so makes it easier to remember. By taking a larger number and breaking it apart, it looks less intimidating, and by remembering the individual "chunks" you'll be able to prompt yourself for the next part when remembering it. It's a good way to hack into your memory "operating system". You can also use chunking to create patterns that your brain will find easier to remember,as opposed to "jumbled" information.

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Memory Problems

Memory problems can be caused by different reasons and can happen at any age. For example, if you're in school and you're dealing with a stressful or anxious time (such as a test), then your memory will be prone to failure because of stress. Similarly, if you're older, age-related memory loss is common but may also be a sign of Alzheimer's or another age-related disease. It can be hard to tell sometimes, but if your memory loss is consistent, then it may be time to seek help. If your memory issue is medical, then chunking and other memory improvement techniques simply won't help.

The first step is to check in with your GP. Let them know of any symptoms you've been having and make sure you can pinpoint exactly when your memory issues are occurring, even if you're not sure for how long. Depending on the cause, they may recommend that you speak with a professional about your anxieties or even depression. If this is the case, therapy can help you enhance your memory performance, while addressing underling issues.

How Memory Works

Memory is a funny concept; sometimes we can't stop the memories and other times they're just out of reach. Most people see memory as a finite connection in the brain, something that you either have or you don't. The common analogy that it's simply a storage place that we can take things in and out of at will, is grossly inaccurate. Our memory is actually a very complex thing, and it is not located in one single section of the brain or even created in one.

When you try and remember something, you'll be using one of three different types of memory; long-term, short-term, or reflexive. Reflexive, or, learned memory, relates to when you have learned a behavior that later became automatic, as walking. You don't need to remember how to walk; you just do it automatically, which is why chunking is not useful for this type of memory.

Short-term memory is the best for chunking, as it allows you to "store" 5-10 items to recall in the short term. If you try toput too many things in your short-term memory, the brain simply "drops out" older memories, in order to make space. These memories have not been fixed into the brain, which is why they're can be "dropped out". Long-term memory takes these fluid items and then creates a pathway within the brain so that they can be accessed over and over without being dropped out. The process of creating long-term memory, typically happens through repetition and during sleep, so chunking does not affect long-term memory at all.

How To Chunk

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  • Take any information you are trying to remember and figure out how to break it down into 5-7 smaller groups. How you break it up is irrelevant, as long as it makes sense to you. You may usesimilarities or commonalities between the items, for this purpose.
  • Start practicing by making connections to different items in your everyday life such as words that have the same number of letters or a similar meaning. Then start associating the words with each other. For example, when you try to memorize the ingredients you need to make spaghetti, think about the delicious spaghetti your favorite restaurant makes. The more vivid you can make the memory and the connection between the listed items, the more likely you are to remember them.
  • Add other memory strategies to your chunking to improve it. For example, using acronyms and rhymes will help you add more items under each grouping. If you have to pick up fruits, you may need Figs, Apples, Raspberries, and Mangoes, by taking the first letter of each, you make the acronym FARM which is easy to associate with fresh fruits, because they all come from a farm. Rather than remembering all four items, you only need to remember FARM, which frees up space within your 5-7 grouping for more items.

Does Chunking Work?

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In the 1950's a study conducted by George Miller, established that short-term memory is limited to 7 pieces of information. He, therefore,created chunking as a means of grouping information together,in an effort to extend short-term memory. It was called "Miller's Law", since any effort to increase the number beyond 7, failed to be established in later studies. In the 1980s chunking was employed again in a study known as the Jacobs study, in an effort to increase short-term capacity. The study used letters, instead of numbers, but found similar findings, except that numbers were easier to remember than letters. Despite attempts to research since then, no study has conclusively proven that chunking or any other memory technique can go beyond this limit.

Chunking can improve working memory, which has an average of only 2-3 things for most people.By changing how the information is remembered,more in put can be stored in the same process by using patterns or groups. An added problem is that most short-term memory is limited to around 30 seconds, however,this can be extended by repeated verbal repetition. So while chunking itself is more of a "hack", this practice too, is finite and limited.

Other Tricks For Improving Memory

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Memory is something we frequently say is fixed, however, this is not completely true. We can improve our short-term memory by using methods like chunking and playing memory games. Short-term memory is like a muscle, the more we practice using memory, the more we're able to improve its performance. Memory apps and games are ideal for this, as they are fun way of both passing time and improve your ability to recall. Methods that are similar to chunking include making rhymes, mnemonics, and acronyms as well as repeating the information verbally.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, is improved by making more complete memories. Picture this; you're experiencing something you want to remember. Stop for a second and use each of your senses; notice what you smell, feel, see, hear, and taste. This is one of the reasons that chewing gum and rosemary are suggested as study aids, for they have strong flavors and scents that can help trigger memories when trying to absorb information. By focusing better and using all your senses, you'll create a complete memory. This doesn't improve your ability to remember, but it will make the memory richer and less likely to be forgotten.

Memory chunking and other tricks can only do so much, but memory is often not as finite as we think it is. If you're struggling with your memory and this is a new symptom, then it's important to speak to a healthcare practitioner about it and get the help you need.


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