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Information processing model

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In cognitive psychology, information processing is an approach to the goal of understanding human thinking. It arose in the 1940s and 1950s. The essence of the approach is to see cognition as being essentially computational in nature, with mind being the software and the brain being the hardware. The information processing approach in psychology is closely allied to cognitivism in psychology and functionalism in philosophy although the terms are not quite synonymous. Information processing can be sequential or parallel, which can both be either centralized or decentralized (distributed). The parallel distributed processing in mid-1980s became popular under the name connectionism. In early 1950s Friedrich Hayek was ahead of his time when he posited the idea of spontaneous order in the brain arising out of decentralized networks of simple units (neurons). However, Hayek is rarely cited in the literature of connectionism.

Basic Terminology

These terms are basic to any understanding of the Information Processing perspective. The basic idea is that aspects of cognition resemble those of a computer. The Brain is like the hardware and the Mind is like the software.

Environmental Input

This is information, input from the environment. Not all information is necessarily processed, as the Executive Processing controls Attention as well as many other factors.

Sensory Store

This is the part of our senses that stores information. In humans it includes sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell senses, which have limited capacity. The information in the sensory store is only kept there for a very short time and unless stored in the Short Term Memory, it quickly fades.

The equivalent in computing to this area is the Keyboard Buffer.

Short Term Memory (STM)

The Short Term Memory is capable of storing information for a limited period of time. This is what humans use to remember a telephone number in their heads, before they can write it down. It has limited capacity as well, though much larger than the Sensory Store. Much work in cognitive psychology has been carried out on Attention and the Short Term Memory Store. Examples include the Phonological Loop and the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad.

The equivalent in computing is Random Access Memory (or RAM)

Long Term Memory (LTM)

The Long Term Memory is capable of storing much information, for a very long period of time. In that time however, the memory is capable of becoming corrupted, changed or destroyed. Information is encoded into the long term memory from the short term memory, and is retrieved to the short term memory from the long term memory. It is our long term memory that we use to remember things like autobiographical memories, such as our childhood.

Errors in encoding and retrieval can corrupt memories, as well as things such as head trauma. It also seems that memories fade over time, and can be modified by recalling the memory in a different way. False Memories are possible.

The equivalent in computing is the Hard-disk.

Executive Processing

This part of the model is responsible for attention to processes, retrieval of recquired memories from the Long Term Memory to the short term memory, and using appropriate problem solving strategies. It too is of limited capacity. Some models suggest that the Executive Processing and the STM are in fact the same, or at least compete for limited attentional resources.

The equivalent in computing is the Central Processing Unit (or CPU), though in many ways there is no equivalent, and the Executive Processor is more like the User of the PC.

Output to Environment

These are the behaviours which the individual displays. For example, my fingers typing this sentance in the article.

Failings and Criticisms

One major problem of this model is that it fails to explain why individuals prefer certain stimuli to others, such as preference for sweet foods and pleasure over pain. It could be argued that the model does not try to explain these phenomena, but without these explanations the model cannot explain psychological phenomena such as Conditioning.

Nor can it explain instinctive behaviour such as sex drive, although it could be argued that our biological nature has hardwired our physiological 'hardware' profile, such that we seek certain pleasureable stimuli and avoid certain unpleasant or painful stimuli. When human beings control themselves, to accept an unpleasant stimuli (going for a long run) or pass up the opportunity to accept a pleasant stimuli (not eating a food, because it contains too much sugar) then it could be argued that the Executive Processing is being engaged, in order to overcome the hardwired, natural instincts.

See also


  • Allen Newell, Unified Theories of Cognition, Harvard University Press (1990).

External links

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