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Data in chunks are easier to remember – even for toddlers

Ever wondered why lots of numbers are grouped in chunks? Your phone number, credit card number, social security number, etc? There many reasons behind this (e.g. coding, computer processing, etc), One reason, however, is that long strings of numbers are easier to remember when chopped into smaller “bite-sized chunks.”

Psychologists at the The Johns Hopkins University have found out that our toddlers – even as young as 14 months old – also use this “chunking” technique to retain more data in their memory.

The researchers conducted the following experiment with 14-month kids:

The children were shown 4 toys and then these toys were hidden in a box or two. The researchers observed whether the time the children spent on searching for the toys. Could they remember how many toys were there originally? Would they continue to search if they found only 2 toys instead of 4? The researchers observed that the children would search longer when the toys consisted of 2 groups of 2 similar toys, such as 2 cars and 2 balls than when the 4 hidden objects were completely distinct from each other. This indicated that the children used chunking when recalling what they have previously seen.

The children were also able to demonstrate the use of “spatial grouping cues” – that is, 3 groups of 2 balls, all identical are easier to remember than 6 balls grouped all together.

The observations suggest that memory is far from being passive. It doesn’t just retain a copy of a previous experience, it also involves processing and restructuring to maximize its efficiency. It also shows that even young toddlers process memory in a very similar way as adults. Furthermore, it seems that “chunking” is instinctive and not learned.


Feigenson & Halberda, Proc National Academy of Sciences July 14, 2008, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0709884105

Headlines@Hopkins 14 July 2008

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