How much of creative thinking do you think takes place in working memory? Working memory is, of course, the place in your mind where information – both new and recalled information – is temporarily placed for processing.
This working system where data (in the form of input from your senses or previous experiences) is brought into the brain, interpreted, and sorted accordingly, is immensely powerful for helping us to solve problems and give context to our circumstance.
Without a healthy system of working memory we would constantly experience that struggle of trying to remember why we walked into a room. With an overpowered working memory we might find ourselves overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of new stimulus in our every day lives.
Thankfully, according to psychological research, our working memory behaves in a way that causes it to only store a small number of information at a time.
In 1956, the psychologist George Miller concluded that the average working memory in a healthy human brain was capable of holding onto approximately “seven plus or minus two” bits of information.
This number seven is fairly ambiguous, because what can be determined as a “bit of information” varies. In his research paper titled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Miller explains that the information we process is typically presented in chunks. One of the most easy-to-identify chunking patterns, Miller writes, is language:
“Our language is tremendously useful for repackaging material into a few chunks rich in information,“Miller writes. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for The Magical Number Seven explains this chunking:
“A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes – thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested. For instance, a word is a single chunk for a speaker of the language but is many chunks for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the language and sees the word as a collection of phonetic segments.”
In other words: we can only understand the world around is in relation to what we already know. If you know a language, you can view words not as individual letters in seemingly random pattern, but as definitive words with meaning.
Take a look at a language you don’t understand and suddenly the words become something more vague and chaotic.
In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes: “When it comes to chunking–and our memory in general–what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.”
We can only understand the world around us in the context of what we already know. Creativity is a system built on existing knowledge and the ways in which we understand how to process that information. Yet how often do we lose sight of this vital perspective?
If our ability to work with stimulus and memory is limited, we can utilize the process of chunking information to adjust our understanding of a concept, or even the way we view and utilize it.
In Five habits of creative masters Andreas von der Heydt explains how chunking processes are used by some of the most brilliant minds throughout history:
“Chunk up (generalize the problem at hand by making it more abstract) and also chunk down (go deeper and deeper to the root of the issue by making it more specific).”
To chunk information up is to view it from a more holistic perspective: looking at letters not as individual characters, but as parts of a more complex system of words, sentences, paragraphs, or messages. As you move more broadly from a concept, you discover more of what can be done with it.
To chunk down is to look at the individual contributors of a particular thing: to see a series of words not as lines of meaning on a page, but to see purpose behind each individual word and letters, or even the ink or electronic pixels that make them up as well. The deeper you go, the more radical your insights can be.
What happens when we purposefully re-chunk (that is: try to view information or stimulus in a chunked-up format other than our natural one) is we are able to see the world around us in new ways.
This shift in perspective provides us with a means for connecting ideas, for finding new uses for pre-existing bits of information.
If our working memory only has the capability to process information in roughly seven (plus or minus two) bits, we can allow ourselves to process more or less information by chunking information in different ways. By doing this, we allow our mind to either dive deeper into a thing and its various parts, or we allow ourselves to connect more concepts through working memory.
If you find yourself creatively stuck, consider the way you’re chunking up information. Then either attempt to look closer at what it is you’re working around, or step as far back as possible and see a wider view of it. Doing so will help allow you to connect new bits of information together, spurring creativity.
Puzzle photo by Mike Kniec.