Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Science of “Chunking,” Working Memory, and How Pattern Recognition Fuels Creativity


“Generating interesting connections between disparate subjects is what makes art so fascinating to create and to view… We are forced to contemplate a new, higher pattern that binds lower ones together.”

It seems to be the season for fascinating meditations on consciousness, exploring such questions as what happens while we sleep, how complex cognition evolved, and why the world exists. Joining them and prior explorations of what it means to be human is The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) by Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor in which, among other things, he sheds light on how our species’ penchant for pattern-recognition is essential to consciousness and our entire experience of life.

The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience. Once we have reached adulthood, we have decades of intensive learning behind us, where the discovery of thousands of useful combinations of features, as well as combinations of combinations and so on, has collectively generated an amazingly rich, hierarchical model of the world. Inside us is also written a multitude of mini strategies about how to direct our attention in order to maximize further learning. We can allow our attention to roam anywhere around us and glean interesting new clues about any facet of our local environment, to compare and potentially add to our extensive internal model.

Much of this capacity relies on our working memory — the temporary storage that holds these primitive pieces of information in order to make them available for further processing — and yet what’s most striking about our ability to build such an “amazingly rich” model of the world is that the limit of our working memory is hardly different from that of a monkey, even though the monkey’s brain is roughly one-fifteenth the size of ours: Experiment after experiment has shown that, on average, the human brain can hold 4 different items in its working memory, compared to 3 or 4 for the monkey.

What makes the difference, Bor argues, is a concept called chunking, which allows us to hack the limits of our working memory — a kind of cognitive compression mechanism wherein we parse information into chunks that are more memorable and easier to process than the seemingly random bits of which they’re composed. Bor explains:

In terms of grand purpose, chunking can be seen as a similar mechanism to attention: Both processes are concerned with compressing an unwieldy dataset into those small nuggets of meaning that are particularly salient. But while chunking is a marvelous complement to attention, chunking diverges from its counterpart in focusing on the compression of conscious data according to its inherent structure or the way it relates to our preexisting memories.

To illustrate the power of chunking, Bor gives an astounding example of how one man was able to use this mental mechanism in greatly expanding the capacity of his working memory. The man, an undergraduate volunteer in a psychology experiment with an average IQ and memory capacity, took part in a simple experiment, in which the researchers read to him a sequence of random digits and asked him to say the digits back in the order he’d heard them. If he was correct, the next trial sequence would be one digit longer; if incorrect, one digit shorter. This standard test for verbal working memory had one twist — it took place over two years, where the young man did this task for an hour a day four days a week.

Initially, he was able to remember roughly 7 numbers in the sequence — an average improvement over the 4-item limit that most people arrive at with a few simple and intuitive rehearsal strategies. But the young man was so bored with the experiment he decided to make it interesting for himself by doing his best to greatly improve his limit — which he did. By the end, some 20 months later, he was able to say back a sequence that was 80 digits long — or, as Bor puts it, “if 7 friends in turn rapidly told him their phone numbers, he could calmly wait until the last digit was spoken and then, from memory, key all 7 friends’ numbers into his phone’s contact list without error,” an achievement that would make Joshua Foer proud.

But how, exactly, was an average person capable of such a superhuman feat? Bor sheds light:

This volunteer happened to be a keen track runner, and so his first thought was to see certain number groups as running times, for instance, 3492 would be transformed into 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds, around the world-record time for running the mile. In other words, he was using his memory for well-known number sequences in athletics to prop up his working memory. This strategy worked very well, and he rapidly more than doubled his working memory capacity to nearly 20 digits. The next breakthrough some months later occurred when he realized he could combine each running time into a superstructure of 3 or 4 running times — and then group these superstructures together again. Interestingly, the number of holders he used never went above his initial capacity of just a handful of items. He just learned to cram more and more into each item in a pyramidal way, with digits linked together in 3s or 4s, and then those triplets or quadruplets of digits linked together as well in groups of 3, and so on. One item-space, one object in working memory, started holding a single digit, but after 20 months of practice, could contain as much as 24 digits.

This young man had, essentially, mastered exponential chunking. But, Bor points out, chunking isn’t useful only in helping us excel at seemingly meaningless tasks — it is integral to what makes us human:

Although [chunking] can vastly increase the practical limits of working memory, it is not merely a faithful servant of working memory — instead it is the secret master of this online store, and the main purpose of consciousness.


There are three straightforward sides to the chunking process — the search for chunks, the noticing and memorizing of those chunks, and the use of the chunks we’ve already built up. The main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover these structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from consciousness.

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns, with one example being that amateur track runner developing tactics to link digits with running times in various races.

But, echoing Richard Feynman’s eloquent lament on the subject, Bor points to a dark side of this hunger for patterns:

One problematic corollary of this passion for patterns is that we are the most advanced species in how elaborately and extensively we can get things wrong. We often jump to conclusions — for instance, with astrology or religion. We are so keen to search for patterns, and so satisfied when we’ve found them, that we do not typically perform sufficient checks on our apparent insights.

Still, our capacity for pattern-recognition, Bor argues, is the very source of human creativity. In fact, chunking and pattern-recognition offer evidence for the combinatorial nature of creativity, affirm Steve Jobs’s famous words that “creativity is just connecting things”, Mark Twain’s contention that “all ideas are second-hand”, and Nina Paley’s clever demonstration of how everything builds on what came before.

The arts, too, generate their richness and some of their aesthetic appeal from patterns. Music is the most obvious sphere where structures are appealing — little phrases that are repeated, raised a key, or reversed can sound utterly beguiling. This musical beauty directly relates to the mathematical relation between notes and the overall logical regularities formed. Some composers, such as Bach, made this connection relatively explicit, at least in certain pieces, which are just as much mathematical and logical puzzles as beautiful musical works.

But certainly patterns are just as important in the visual arts as in music. Generating interesting connections between disparate subjects is what makes art so fascinating to create and to view, precisely because we are forced to contemplate a new, higher pattern that binds lower ones together.

What is true of creative skill, Bor argues, is also true of our highest intellectual contribution:

Some of our greatest insights can be gleaned from moving up another level and noticing that certain patterns relate to others, which on first blush may appear entirely unconnected — spotting patterns of patterns, say (which is what analogies essentially are).

Best of all, this system expands exponentially as it feeds on itself, like a muscle that grows stronger with each use:

Consciousness and chunking allow us to turn the dull sludge of independent episodes in our lives into a shimmering, dense web, interlinked by all the myriad patterns we spot. It becomes a positive feedback loop, making the detection of new connections even easier, and creates a domain ripe for understanding how things actually work, of reaching that supremely powerful realm of discerning the mechanism of things. At the same time, our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective — and intelligent — than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.

Though some parts of The Ravenous Brain fringe on reductionism, Bor offers a stimulating lens on that always fascinating, often uncomfortable, inevitably alluring intersection of science and philosophy where our understanding of who we are resides.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Age of Power and Wonder: Vintage Science Infographics from 1930s Cigarette Cards


What metal diver suits have to do with electricity generation and the sound spectrum.

Vintage visions of the future of technology abound, and while some futurists’ predictions have been strikingly right, most of them remain delightfully ludicrous. Indeed, any trip in the time machine of science and technology is inevitably accompanied by equal measures of amusement at our past misguidedness, marvel at how far we’ve come, and anxiety about how misguided we ourselves may seem in the future. In the first half of the 20th century, such predictions were a form of popular entertainment and even appeared as collectible cards that came with food and tobacco products.

The New York Public Library has digitized a large collection of such cigarette cards, including a Max Cigarettes series from 1935-1938 titled Age of Power and Wonder — a set of 250 cards predicting advances in science and technology and exploring curious aspects of the era’s existing inventions. Also included in the series were a number of scientific and quasi-scientific infographics, gathered here for your viewing pleasure.


Ordinary white light is made up of a number of colours which, put together, produce 'white'. The picture shows the first position occupied by infra-red light which has a wave length too long to be visible by the human eye. Immediately above the infra-red comes visible red, and then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Above the violet is the ultra-violet, the health-giving , invisible, high-frequency rays which have been proven so vital to life. Very much higher up come X-rays and Gamma-rays.

(Complement this with Goethe’s theory of the color spectrum and human emotion.)


The source of sound is always a body in a state of more or less rapid vibration. The number of vibrations (cycles) per second can be measured and so sounds classified according to their cycle values. Thus, like light, sound is arranged in a kind of 'spectrum'; each sound having a wave-length. Thus, if the frequency of a note be 200 to a second, its wavelength is 1-200 units.


All movement is relative, not absolute. Two cars moving side by side along a road at 60 miles per hour, relative to the road, are stationary in relation to each other. A car is traveling on the road at 60 m.p.h., beside it on the rail a train is traveling at 100 m.p.h. In the air above them a plane is traveling at 200 m.p.h. All the speeds quoted are relative to the surface of the earth. In relation to the train, the aircraft is only doing 100 m.p.h., just as the train is only doing 40 m.p.h. in relation to the car*.


Divers not equipped with any kind of apparatus at all become uncomfortable and run considerable danger if they go beyond 50 feet. Diving to such depths for a living is extremely trying. It shortens life, causes various diseases of the heart and blood, and may result in sudden and painful death. In an ordinary diving suit depths of 150 feet may be reached, but beyond that there is a danger that pressure upon the body would result in injury and death. In the 'Tritonia' all-metal suit, twenty times this depth is quite feasible.


Fluid fuel has many advantages over solid fuel; it is easier to handle, can be fed to the fire or furnace without the need for stokers, and it is far cleaner. Moreover, you cannot use coal in the engines of motor cars or aircraft. The supplies of mineral oil which yield petrol are rapidly becoming exhausted. Petrol is being extracted from coal by the hydro-generation process -- five tons of coal yielding one ton of petrol. The other four tons are not wasted but produce valuable raw materials and by-products.


The imperfect conductivity of available materials results in great loss of power of current during transit over long distances. The loss occurs even in the cable, which puts up a slight resistance to current. Metals at temperature near -273ºC. have almost perfect conductivity. A method of reproducing this condition of frozen metals might save millions sterling every year.


The importance of the work done in forecasting tidal levels by the 'Brass Brain' in Washington is demonstrated in a simple fashion in this picture. Note how a deep draught ocean-going ship can safely pass at high tide and can still do so if low tide levels were a quarter again as high above the sea-bank. Knowing the exact time and level of ebb is vital.

For a bout of excruciating irony, card number 6 in the series examined advances in cancer treatment:


When scientists first began to create synthetic radio-activity, to make substitutes for radium, by bombarding certain atoms with millions of electron-volts, someone suggested, 'Why make radium to cure cancer? Use the bombarding atoms direct'. This suggestion was adopted by the use of very high voltage X-rays. Many successful experiments have been made.

* Raise your hand if the math here makes you raise an eyebrow.

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31 AUGUST, 2012

The Universe in a Nutshell: Michio Kaku on the Physics of Everything


The history of physics is the history of modern civilization.

How did humanity go from a tribe governed by superstition to a species on the hunt for the Higgs Boson and the deepest secrets of the cosmos? In The Universe in a Nutshell, theoretical physicist and prolific author Michio Kaku — who has previously helped us unravel the mysteries of time — explores why “the history of physics is the history of modern civilization.” From the Big Bang to E=mc2 to the latest bleeding-edge advances in string theory and quantum mechanics, Kaku offers a concise and accessible history of physics, while shining a light on the discipline’s promise to bring us closer to the secrets of existence.

Almost everything you see in your living room, almost everything you see at a modern hospital, at some point or other, can be traced to a physicist.

In contextualizing the role of physics in the development of modern civilization, Kaku quotes legendary science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke:

The video, originally created by Floating University, is available for free courtesy of Big Think.

The desk of Albert Einstein, photographed immediately after his death and featuring his unfinished manuscripts of the Unified Field Theory, a.k.a. The Theory of Everything, which aspired to summarize all the physical forces in the universe.

Kaku’s latest book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, came out in February and is guaranteed to give you plenty of pause.

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable


“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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