Chunks of memory

Your personality doesn’t matter. This is a skill you can learn.

Extreme feats of memory are possible when we remember large quantities of information as one unit, because we have spent so much time with it. We all do this.

I know I have written about this before, already back in the original Chaos Node, where I read about it in an issue of Scientific American. Recently I read about the same thing in the book Talent is overrated. For instance, chess grandmasters could glance at a chess board and later reconstruct it exactly, something no normal person could do. From another ancient board game, Go (or Igo), I know that high-level players not only remember every move of a match, but can often guess how a match has progressed even if they arrive late into it, possibly even at the end. For someone unfamiliar with the game, this seems like magic. And yet we all do the same thing.

Neurotypical humans store incredible amounts of information about the people around them. Not only can they recognize a friend at a glance after several years, they can also keep track of the relationships between everyone in a village: Who are second cousins with who, who are friends, who are enemies, who are in love with who and who were in love with their current enemies years ago. Nobody finds this remarkable in the least, but it is really amazing.

Likewise we are very good at categorizing things. Or dogegorizing, I guees: Even children can usually tell cats and dogs apart, although small children have trouble with really small dogs which may be labeled cats. Even though there are so many different dogs and breeds of dogs, people have this internal concept “dog” which kind sums up the essential elements of doghood and which they remember as a unit, even after many years.

In the same way, if you grew up with your mother, when you think “my mother” you actually remember thousands of things, from how she looked at various ages to details of her behavior and relationships. You don’t consciously think of all these details every time you see her name, but if someone were to say something untrue about her, you would recognize it immediately.

In other words, all of us have the ability to remember very complex things as 1 unit.

Our short term memory is very limited, usually we are able to remember around 7 units of information at the same time. The actual number may vary from 5 to 9 and can be increased with rigorous training. It is the number of digits you can remember while walking from one room to another without repeating them in your mind. But if those digits are familiar, the number suddenly increases dramatically. For instance, to me the 6 digits 271258 count as 1 unit of information: It is my date of birth in the format used in this part of the world, ddmmyy. So I would be able to remember 6 more digits while leaving the room. Yes, strange as this may seem, I have an average short-term memory. I have tested this.


The computer language Forth caught my attention toward the end of high school. It was little more than a rumor back then, some new-fangled invention from the States. Personal computers were something hobbyists built themselves, and pitifully weak. A corporate mainframe at that time was perhaps a match for a smartphone today. OK, perhaps a little more. Let’s say a smartphone next year. But only a few years later, I had my own personal computer, weak though it was, and was programming in Forth.

This particular computer language had a peculiar structure. The basic language was very simple, consisting of a stack for data and a set of basic “words” that were coded in machine language, either directly or with an assembler. These were very simple commands which would be defined differently from computer to computer because of the hardware, but which (ideally) had the same names and function on all computers. But this was not what fascinated me. Rather, you could define new words by combining the old ones. The new words could be used in the same way to combine into more words. By keeping the definitions short and simple, the risk of errors was greatly diminished, and it was easy to test the new words right away. Yet there was no obvious limit to what you could do. There was very little overhead in having many levels of definitions.

The reason this appealed to me is that I am a verbal person. I think in a very similar way to this computer language, building new concept from existing concept. As long as I keep it simple, I can trust the knowledge I build from basic, and I can test it.


When you spend a lot of time doing something, whether it is programming or chess or surgery, you acquire what is called “domain knowledge” within that area. And when this knowledge becomes a part of you, something as natural to you as cats and dogs and family and friends, you begin to be able to think of it in chunks. The chess player can remember every piece on the board because not only the pieces are familiar to him, but the possible configurations too. He has seen them many times: When this particular group of pieces appear on this part of the board, it means certain risks and opportunities that are very real to him. He has no need to memorize this particular picture: He has seen it before, repeatedly, and it has meaning to him.

When I learned to read, I had to learn the alphabet like people did for generations before me. I hear that this is no longer considered very important, people start looking at words as pictures right away. But words still consists of letters, and sentences consist of words, paragraphs of sentences and so on. When you remember a poem or a particularly moving passage from a book, you don’t try to recall each individual letter in turn. Like the programming language, the “primitives” – the basic components – soon become buried in higher-level structures. Reading and writing are themselves everyday examples of structured knowledge. And as with the programming language, there is no obvious upper limit. Scholars will hold entire books conceptually in their mind – not word by word probably, but still in a very real sense whole books – and compare them to arrive at a higher meaning from the way the books agree or disagree. If we were wiser and lived longer lives, who knows what we could achieve?

Humans, it seems to me, are not proportionate to the savanna or the shores from which the “naked ape” emerged, but rather proportionate to the infinite. As better men than I have noticed, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe may be that it is so comprehensible. At least now we know a little bit more about ourselves as well.

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