Quick! Memorize the following letters:
…not done yet??? Fine — give up then, because it really does take too long.
Ok, let’s make it easier by breaking up the string of letters like this:
UPSI RSFB IJF KNA SAN ATO
Easier, right? Just 6 little ‘words’ to remember. Nope. Still too hard, and still takes too much time.
Well, what about if we break the letters up like this then:
UPS IRS FBI JFK NASA NATO
Wow… What a difference! Still six words, but so much easier and faster to remember. Same letters — different grouping. The big difference now is that they’re grouped into thought-units, with each thought-unit representing a meaningful chunk of information.
Before using thought-units, it would have been very difficult and time-consuming for anyone to remember the letters. The problem is reading and remembering takes a lot of thinking… and thinking takes time. You can’t really make those neurons fire any faster than they are capable of. As smart as these guys are, they still have certain physical limits.
Of course, I don’t mean that neurons are slow; but it just takes an awful lot of firing on their part to accomplish all the work they have to do, as they sort and store information. When they’re resting, neurons fire about 25 times per second. When they’re active, that increases to around 400 times per second. And when they’re concentrating really hard on something, they max out at about 1,000 firings per second. So yes, you can think faster, but there’s definitely some limit.
And there are other limits too. Besides processing speed, our conscious mind is limited to holding only about 4 things at a time. And it can only hold those seven things for a mere second or two. Geeze! Talk about an attention deficit!
But fortunately there is a very clever solution; and this solution is the special talent that has put humans way ahead of the pack in the thinking department.
Although humans aren’t well known for their physical strength or speed, nor for any particularly powerful senses; what they do have… is consciousness. Consciousness gives them an amazing ability to easily handle very novel and complex information. This is what makes them able to invent new solutions to problems, and to make accurate predictions about the future.
This consciousness is not the whole brain, but resides primarily in the prefrontal cortex. This is where you pay attention. This area is where the real ‘you’ lives.
You could think of this prefrontal cortex like an erasable whiteboard, where information is scribbled temporarily while the consciousness decides what to do with it. Billions of pieces of information flow in from the senses and are quickly organized, filtered and chunked together into concepts.
The trick is that although limited to seven items, these items can be immensely complex. Similar to the way we stack the food on our plates at an all-you-can-eat buffet; this chunking process makes the most of each conceptual item, before it is sent on to memory.
The key to this process of filtering and combining information is the human brain’s craving for finding patterns and hidden structures. These patterns allow ideas and concepts to be assembled into massively complex pyramids of information, so that everything you think of comes attached with many layers of underlying meaning and associations.
This hunger for patterns is unstoppable; we can’t help seeing patterns in everything. The result of this is more than just a fast broadband information channel. It also results in our rich experiences. By filtering and combining information into patterns, we create the complex context of our consciousness. We don’t just see, learn and remember information; but understand it. To conceptualize information is to become truly aware of it, and what it means to us.
The fact is, the process of chunking information into conceptual patterns is not just a neat trick for thinking and reading faster; the more we chunk information into concepts, the more conscious we become.