People have more difficulty recalling the string of letters BIC, IAJ, FKI, RSU and SAF than FBI, CIA, JFK, IRS and USA. The well-established reason is that the amount of information we can hold in our short-term or working memory is affected by whether the information can be "chunked" into larger units.New research by Carnegie Mellon University psychologists takes this learning principle one step further by uncovering how the strength - or familiarity - of those chunks plays a crucial role. Published in Psychonomic Bulletin Review, they show for the first time that it is easier to learn new facts that are composed of more familiar chunks. For the study, 20 CMU undergraduates with no prior experience with Chinese language learning were familiarized with 64 Chinese characters during three-hour-long sessions each week for one month. This involved searching for a particular character in visual display of similar characters. (See top row of Figure 1.) Half of the characters were randomly selected to display at a higher frequency -- 20 times more often -- to become more familiar to the participants, leaving the remaining "low-frequency" characters less familiar. Each week, participants also completed a memory test requiring them to learn an association between a pair of characters and an arbitrary English word. (See the second row in Figure 1.) Each pair of characters was completely new and was composed either of the low-frequency or the high-frequency characters. The researchers found that novel combinations of characters that were made from the more familiar characters were easier to learn to associate with new information than combinations made from the less familiar characters.