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.

What is an information processing model?

Information processing model: brain outline with yellow bars in it

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 model — or models

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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Assumptions of information processing models

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:

  • It's capable of managing and processing information. Individuals are genetically adapted to process information and simplify complexities in specific ways.
  • A controlled system is required. A regulatory mechanism is necessary to oversee how information is received, interpreted, changed, recalled, and used by the brain.
  • It has a limited capacity. The system can only process so much information, either because of information flow restrictions or individual mental capacity.

With these assumptions in place, psychologists have a foundation for studying cognitive information processing and building models to describe the process.

Parts of an information processing model

Information processing model: cutout of a human head with puzzle pieces inside it and beside it

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.

1. Sensation and perception

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?

Optical illusion of 2 women by W. E. Hill

It's both!

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.

2. Memory

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. This type of memory allows you to temporarily store information after bringing it into your brain through your senses. For example, you can repeat someone's phone number after hearing it.
  • Short-term memory. This type of memory allows you to hold information in your mind for a short period, just long enough to use. For example, if you need to remember a grocery list, you can hold the information in your short-term memory until you've written it down or until you've gone to the store.
  • Long-term memory. This form of memory allows you to store information for an extended period of time. Long-term memory can be divided into two types:
  • Explicit memory. This is the form of long-term memory that you can consciously recall. For example, you might clearly remember a favorite childhood toy.
  • Implicit memory. This is the long-term memory you can't consciously recall, but that affects your behavior. You probably still remember how to ride a bike, for instance, even if it has been a while.

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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3. Cognition

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:

  • Attention. This is the mental process of selecting certain environmental information to focus on. For example, if you're in a noisy room, you can choose to pay attention to the conversation you're having with your friend and tune out the other noise.
  • Chunking. This is the cognitive ability to group information together. For example, if you see a phone number like 5558675309, you can group the numbers into three chunks — 555, 867, and 5309 — to make the number easier to remember.
  • Organization. Using this process, we put information into a meaningful order. For example, suppose you're trying to remember the steps of a recipe. In that case, you might organize them in the order you do them — preheat the oven first, mix the ingredients together, and finally, bake for 30 minutes.

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.

The 3 top information processing models

Orange cutout of a brain with crumpled pieces of paper inside it

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.

1. The Atkinson-Shiffrin model

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:

  • Sensory Memory. This is the first step in processing information and includes all the information currently being sensed by the individual. Unless addressed, this information is stored in a brief, unorganized manner and lasts for a split second.
  • Short-Term Memory. The short-term memory, or working memory, is where we hold the information we are aware of at the moment. During this stage, the information is still unorganized and usually only partially processed, and is stored for a short period of time, usually around 20-30 seconds.
  • Long-Term Memory. Long-term memory is the final stage of information processing. We can store this information for a long time, sometimes even for the rest of our lives. At this stage, information is usually well organized and retrievable.

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.

2. The Baddeley-Hitch model

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 phonological loop. This area of working memory is responsible for processing information we hear, such as spoken words.
  • The visuospatial sketchpad. This part of working memory is responsible for visual processing information we see, such as images and spatial relations.
  • The central executive. This part of working memory is responsible for coordinating information processing, making decisions and critical thinking, and controlling attention.
  • Episodic buffer. Later, Baddeley and Hitch proposed the addition of an episodic memory buffer to their model. This temporary storage system allows information from the other parts of working memory to be integrated and stored temporarily.

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.

3. The parallel distributed processing model

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.

Enhance your learning and problem-solving skills with the information processing model

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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Straight from the ABLE team: how we work and what we build. Thoughts, learnings, notes, experiences and what really matters.

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