If you come to a red light, can you turn before the light turns green?
The answer to this question isn’t so simple. Before you know whether or not you can turn, you have to retrieve some information from your memory and take in the sights around you. In the United States, you may be able to turn on red. But you remember that sometimes, there are signs next to the traffic light that give specific instructions about not turning on red.
If you want to turn left, you may have to retrieve information about what state you are in and whether you are turning onto a one-way street. Some states allow this, others do not. Again, you may have to search for a sign that might tell you otherwise. As you take in your surroundings, you will also have to look for pedestrians, bikers, or other things that may prevent you from turning.
There are a lot of factors that play into this one decision. You must also gather, and have previously collected, a lot of information within your mind. Once you have processed all of the information that you have about traffic laws, the direction you want to go, and the scene in front of you, then you begin to make your decision. But even more factors are at play here. If the guy behind you is honking and making a scene, you might not turn to anger them even more. You may decide to turn, even when it's illegal, because you have to get to the hospital in time for your partner’s birth. Maybe you know that there is a high police presence in the area, and wait for the green light “just in case.” There is so much that goes into this one decision.
Nowadays, the idea that the mind “processes information like a computer” is kind of a given. Comparing our minds to a computer makes sense. We can easily connect the information in our memories to data on a hard drive. But this analogy didn’t always stick for psychologists and neurologists. In fact, the information processing approach is relatively new. It remains a fundamental idea within the world of cognitive psychology. This video will take you through the basic ideas within information processing theory, and show how this theory has influenced the way that we view the mind’s inner workings.
Basic Ideas of Information Processing Theory
The information processing approach began to uphold cognitive psychology as the replacement for Behaviorism, starting in the 1950s or so. Behaviorists took a very deterministic approach. They believed that our behaviors were merely a response to stimuli, something that could be altered or “conditioned.” You can see how examples like turning on a red light can challenge the idea of Behaviorism. The stimulus, a red light, can produce a variety of responses that may be chosen based on the time of day, state, your mood, etc.
Instead, psychologists began to gravitate toward the information processing approach. They saw how computers could store, retrieve, and collect information that applies to various problems, decisions, and behaviors. They saw the mind like this computer, and began to explore this analogy further. Psychologists have always been trying to organize the inner workings of the mind. The information processing approach gave them a way to do so that made sense to the complicated, expansive, and constantly developing processes that go on inside our head.
Human minds are like computers, but there are some big differences between the brain and a computer that we must understand. Computers, especially earlier models, are pretty limited to serial processing. They must complete one process before the next one begins. Of course, this will change as technology becomes more and more advanced. Rather than the mind becoming closer to a computer, computers will become more like the mind. They will be able to rely on parallel processing, which means that one or more processes are occurring at one time. Fast typers, for example, engage in parallel processing while they type on the computer. They move their fingers, anticipate the next sentence, and even edit their own work at once.
Another difference between the mind and the computer reveals what makes us human: emotion. We can retrieve memory like a computer, but our memories come with emotions. These emotions often sway our decisions and even alter our perceptions of everyday events.
But the information processing approach still compares the computer to the mind. The best way that we use this analogy is by looking at the way that we retrieve, store, and collect information.
Memory and the Mind
Let’s go back to the example at the red light to explain how information moves through the mind and (maybe) eventually gets stored in our long-term memory.
The information processing approach likes to organize processes in stages and steps. We find this in cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development and also the organization of our memory. We begin this process with sensory memory.
When we take in information through our senses, that information gets stored in our sensory memory. For example, we may see a red light, a crosswalk, or a sign that says “No Turn on Red, 10am-6pm.” Our senses have an infinite amount of information to take in, at any given time. If you are in a car, your senses could observe the hum of the car’s AC, the stitching on the steering wheel, or the taste of the gum that you are chewing. But our mind cannot focus on all of those things at once. It uses selective attention to focus on the things that matter. The hum of the AC is not a priority, but the sign next to the red light is. The mind, then, focuses on the sight of the sign.
Once information is delivered by the senses, it may go into “short-term memory.” In more recent years, as cognitive psychologists understood how short-term memory works, they began to refer to this space as “working memory.” In computer lingo, working memory is like a computer’s RAM. Working memory can only hold a limited amount of information at one time. You may be able to hold onto the times in which you can and cannot turn red in your working memory, but you may not be able to recall that phone number you needed to memorize 30 minutes earlier. This storage space is useful when, for example, you need to look at your phone and check the time. 7pm? You can turn on red.
If information in your working memory “makes the cut,” it will be stored in your long-term memory. Think of long-term memory as a hard-drive, but with an infinite amount of storage space. Every memory that you have collected throughout the course of your life appears in your long-term memory. So many memories are in there that you may not know everything that is in there. Have you ever had a memory pop out of nowhere? Something that you hadn’t thought about in years? That was stored in your long-term memory, waiting to be retrieved.
While some psychologists equate long-term memory to a hard drive, others see it as a filing cabinet filled with index cards. This is the analogy many use to describe Schema, a concept pioneered by Jean Piaget. Piaget suggested that our minds create and mold schema based on an individual concept. The concept of “red light” has its own schema in the mind. Within that schema, or index card, are traffic laws relating to red lights, the knowledge that red lights sit at the top of the traffic light, and of course, the reference to the red light in Roxanne by The Police. As we collect new information, we may adjust, modify, or completely dismantle the schema that we have created.
Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Processing
We have access to every memory that we have ever stored in our lives. We also have access to so much sensory data in front of our eyes. So how do we process information?
There are two ways that this happens: bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing is the process I mentioned earlier in this video. Our senses pick up on information and send that information to the brain. We do not need any previous memories, context, or information to engage in bottom-up processing. The data is “recorded” and processed in real-time.
But not all information is processed in real-time. Instead of picking up on information in real-time, our brains may also pull from previous experiences, expectations, and emotions to engage in top-down processing. Using this information, we process sensory data and interpret it using “clues” that we have already processed and stored.
Have you ever read a sentence with a typo, but failed to notice that typo? That’s because you’re engaging in top-down processing. Your mind can use contextual clues and past information to tell you what that word really “means,” even if it is spelled wrong.
Other Ways to Store and Process Information
These concepts within the Information Processing Approach are just some of the topics that psychologists have used to explain and describe what goes on in the human mind. As you continue to learn about cognitive psychology, remember the Information Processing Approach.