Chunk formation in immediate memory and how it relates to data compression

Mustapha Chekaf, Nelson Cowan, Fabien Mathy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper attempts to evaluate the capacity of immediate memory to cope with new situations in relation to the compressibility of information likely to allow the formation of chunks. We constructed a task in which untrained participants had to immediately recall sequences of stimuli with possible associations between them. Compressibility of information was used to measure the chunkability of each sequence on a single trial. Compressibility refers to the recoding of information in a more compact representation. Although compressibility has almost exclusively been used to study long-term memory, our theory suggests that a compression process relying on redundancies within the structure of the list materials can occur very rapidly in immediate memory. The results indicated a span of about three items when the list had no structure, but increased linearly as structure was added. The amount of information retained in immediate memory was maximal for the most compressible sequences, particularly when information was ordered in a way that facilitated the compression process. We discuss the role of immediate memory in the rapid formation of chunks made up of new associations that did not already exist in long-term memory, and we conclude that immediate memory is the starting place for the reorganization of information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)96-107
Number of pages12
Early online date29 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

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