We've all been there — you're trying to remember something and it's just on the tip of your tongue. But no matter what you do, you just can't seem to recall it. Why does this happen?
According to the information processing model, our memory works like a computer. Information comes in via our senses through various stimuli and is processed by our brain. This information can be stored in our short-term or long-term memory, depending on its importance.
However, this processing system doesn't always work smoothly, and information loss can occur at any time, especially if we're distracted. That's why it's so hard to remember where you put your keys or the name of that song you heard — the information just hasn't been appropriately encoded in our memory.
Let’s examine the information processing model and how it assists us in absorbing and recalling new information.
An information processing model is a framework used by cognitive psychologists to explain and describe the processes of the human brain. According to these models, our brain receives, interprets, and uses information in stages corresponding to different steps in the information processing system.
The information processing theory likens the human brain's processing system to a computer. The computer (our brain) receives the data (sensory information), then processes it, either using it right away to perform a task or storing it in its files for later use.
However, this isn't a perfect analogy for how the brain works. The human brain isn't simply a passive information processor. We aren't born with data, algorithms, and decoders — we're born with senses, reflexes, emotions, and the ability to learn and change over time.
This "uniqueness problem" has driven cognitive psychologists and scientists to study the human brain — successfully and disastrously — and form models to explain how we process information.
The information processing approach is more of a framework than one model. Cognitive psychologists use it to build models to understand our mental processes. Psychologists have proposed several information processing models, each with its own twist.
You may be wondering — how can there possibly be more than one explanation for how something works? After all, there isn't more than one way a car engine works.
The answer lies in the complexity and uniqueness of the human mind.
As psychologist Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology explained in his incredible essay "The Empty Brain:"
"Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person's life history..."
The complexity of our cognitive systems explains why many models have been developed to understand the human brain. More will follow as our understanding grows.
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A few assumptions must be made for any information processing model to be accepted as accurate. These assumptions are the things that must be true for the model to work. In general, any information processing model relies on the following assumptions about the brain:
With these assumptions in place, psychologists have a foundation for studying cognitive information processing and building models to describe the process.
The basic information processing model has been very influential in cognitive psychology and has helped shape our understanding of how information is processed by the human brain. There are several models to conceptualize information processing, but most models include the same essential parts.
The information processing model begins with sensation and perception. Sensation is the capacity to have a physical feeling or perception by receiving information from environmental stimuli through our senses. Perception is becoming aware of, organizing, and interpreting this information so that it makes sense to us.
For example, if you are a sighted person and a friend walks toward you, your eyes first take in information about your friend's appearance through your sense of sight. This information is then transmitted to your brain, where it is organized and interpreted based on your past experiences. In this case, you might recognize your friend and be able to tell that they are happy to see you.
While sensory information is often the starting point of information processing, it's not the only input source. Our brains can also receive information from our thoughts and feelings, and these mental processes also impact our perception.
If you've seen an optical illusion, you know that perception isn't always accurate. What we perceive can be influenced by our prior knowledge and experience and the context in which we see something.
Take a look at the image below. What do you see — a young woman or an older woman?
When your eyes take in the image, your brain organizes it and interprets it based on what you already know (your experience). Your brain fills in missing data based on how you perceive the information, so you will either see a young woman or an older woman.
Optical illusions such as ambiguous figures are a good reminder that our perception is not always accurate. This is why we must be careful when interpreting information, especially in decision-making.
The second part of the information processing model is memory. Once information is gathered from the environment, it must be stored in memory so that it can be accessed and used later. Memory is essential for learning and understanding new information, and there's a lot we still don't understand about it.
One thing we do know is that there are a few different types of human memory, and each type has a different capacity. For example, you have a different kind of memory capacity for your phone number than you do for the events of your childhood.
There are three main types of memory:
Sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory are all essential and work together to help you store and organize information. It's important to note that our memories are not perfect. They are often quite flawed, in fact, because they can be influenced by our biases, emotions, and past experiences.
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Cognition is the third part of the information processing model. It refers to how we process information in our minds. Our cognitive abilities include simple mental processes (like sensation and perception) and more complex mental processes (like memory and problem-solving). These processes allow us to make sense of the information we receive from the world around us.
A few examples of cognitive information processing include:
Cognition is a complex process, and there's still a lot we don't understand about it. However, research on cognitive development and cognitive abilities has helped us to better understand our mental processes and how we can improve our cognitive skills.
Throughout history, a few models have contributed significantly to our understanding of the human brain and its functions. These models differ in their strengths and weaknesses, but they all share similar features.
The Atkinson-Shiffrin model is the earliest and most well-known information processing model. Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin proposed the "multi-store model" in 1968, which suggests that information processing occurs in three distinct stages:
Many criticize this model for putting memory items and cognitive tasks in one short-term storage. Whether or not rehearsal is necessary to transfer information to long-term memory is also debated. While the model did not provide a comprehensive solution, it provided a basis for future research and development in the field.
Working memory was added to the Atkinson-Shiffrin model in 1974 by Graham Hitch and Alan Baddeley. The Baddeley-Hitch model, also known as the "working model," suggests that short-term memory has several subsystems that process different types of information. These include:
The Baddeley-Hitch model is the most widely accepted information processing model and has been supported by a great deal of empirical evidence. One of the main criticisms of this model is that it relies too heavily on verbal information, which doesn't reflect how information is processed in the real world.
The parallel distributed processing (PDP) model was proposed by David Rumelhart and James McClelland in the 1980s. The PDP model, also called the "connectionist" model, asserts that the brain handles large numbers of cognitive operations at once through a distributed network of locations in the brain.
PDP is complicated and hard to explain in detail. The idea is that information is handled through multiple interconnected nodes, each representing a different piece of information. Each node is connected by a series of links, and rather than being stored locally, the knowledge and memories we hold are found in the connections between them.
The PDP model has been very influential in information processing and has led to the development of several different computer models that simulate how information is processed in the brain. However, the PDP model has also received criticism for not providing a clear explanation of how information is stored in the brain.
The information processing model is a cognitive psychology tool that can help you understand how the brain takes in, stores, and recalls the world around you. Learning how the human brain processes information allows us to solve problems more effectively and efficiently. The next time you're stuck on a problem, think about how information is processed in your brain. You may just find the solution you're looking for.
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