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In cognitive psychology, information processing is an approach to the goal of understanding human thinking. Information processing may more specifically be defined in terms used by Claude E. Shannon as the conversion of latent information into manifest information (McGonigle & Mastrian, 2011). Latent and manifest information is defined through the terms of equivocation (remaining uncertainty, what value the sender has actually chosen), dissipation (uncertainty of the sender what the receiver has actually received), and transformation (saved effort of questioning - equivocation minus dissipation) (Denning and Bell, 2012).

Within the field of cognitive psychology, information processing is an approach to the goal of understanding human thinking in relation to how they process the same kind of information as computers (Shannon & Weaver, 1963). It arose in the 1940s and 1950s, after World War II (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). The essence of the approach is to see cognition as being in essence computational in nature, with mind being the software and the brain being the hardware. The information processing approach in psychology is closely allied to the Computational theory of mind in philosophy; it is also related, though not identical, to cognitivism in psychology and functionalism in philosophy (Horst, 2011).

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. The connectionist network is made up different nodes, and it works by a "priming effect," and this happens when a "prime node activates a connected node" (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). But "unlike in semantic networks, it is not a single node that has a specific meaning, but rather the knowledge is represented in a combination of differently activated nodes"(Goldstein, as cited in Sternberg, 2012).

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 required 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 sentence in the article.

Models and theories

There are several proposed models/theories that describe the way in which we process information.

Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Sternberg's theory intelligence is made up of three different components: creative, analytical, and practical abilities (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Creativeness is the ability to have new original ideas, and being analytical can help a person decide whether the idea is a good one or not. "Practical abilities are used to implement the ideas and persuade others of their value" (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012 p. 21). In the middle of Sternberg's theory is cognition and with that is information processing. In Sternberg’s theory, he says that information processing is made up of three different parts, metacomponents, performance components, and knowledge-acquisition components (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). These processes move from higher-order executive functions to lower order functions. Metacomponents are used for planning and evaluating problems, while performance components follow the orders of the metacomponents, and the knowledge-acquisition component learns how to solve the problems (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). This theory in action would be like working on an art project. First you have to decide what you want to draw, and then plan and sketch it out. During this process you would be monitoring how it is going, and if it is what you really wanted to accomplish. All these steps fall under the metacomponent processing, and the performance component would be the actual painting. The knowledge-acquisition portion would be learning how to draw what you want to draw.

Information processing model: The Working Memory

According to, the definition of information processing is, "the sciences concerned with gathering, manipulating, storing, retrieving, and classifying recorded information".It suggests that for information to be firmly implanted in memory, it must pass through three stages of mental processing; sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. An example of this is the working memory model. This includes the central executive, phonologic loop, episodic buffer,visuospatial sketchpad, verbal information, long term memory, and visual information (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). The central executive is like the secretary of the brain. It decides what needs attention and how to respond.The central executive then leads to three different subsections. The first is phonological storage, subvocal rehearsal, and the phonological loop. These sections work together to understand words, put the information into memory, and then hold the memory. The result is verbal information storage. The next subsection is the visuospatial sketchpad which works to store visual images. The storage capacity is brief but leads to understanding of visual stimuli. Finally, there is an episodic buffer. This section is capable of taking information and putting it into long-term memory. It is also able to take information from the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad, combining them with long-term memory to make "a unitary episodic representation (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). In order for these to work, the sensory register takes in via the five senses: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste. These are all present since birth and are able to handle simultaneous processing (e.g., food – taste it, smell it, see it). In general, learning benefits occur when there is a developed process of pattern recognition. The sensory register has a large capacity and its behavioral response is very short (1–3 seconds). Within this model, sensory store and short term memory or working memory has limited capacity. Sensory store is able to hold very limited amounts of information for very limited amounts of time. This phenomena is very similar to having your picture taken with the flash on. For a few brief moments after the flash goes off, the flash is still there. Soon after, though, it is gone and you would have never known it was there (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Short term memory holds information for slightly longer periods of time, but still has a limited capacity. According to Linden (2007), "The capacity of STM had initially been estimated at “seven plus or minus two” items (Miller 1956), which fits the observation from neuropsychological testing that the average digit span of healthy adults is about seven (Cowan and others 2005). However, it emerged that these numbers of items can only be retained if they are grouped into so-called chunks, using perceptual or conceptual associations between individual stimuli." Its duration is of 5–20 seconds before it is out of the subject's mind. This occurs often with names of people newly introduced to. Images or information based on meaning are stored here as well, but it decays without rehearsal or repetition of such information. On the other hand, long-term memory has a potentially unlimited capacity (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012) and its duration is indefinite. Although sometimes it is difficult to access, it encompasses everything learned until this point in time. One might become forgetful or feel as if the information is on the tip of the tongue.

Cognitive development theory

Another approach to viewing the ways in which information is processed in humans was suggested by Jean Piaget in what is called the Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory (Presnell,1999). Piaget developed his model based on development and growth. He identified four different stages between different age brackets characterized by the type of information and by a distinctive thought process. The four stages are: the sensorimotor (from birth to 2 years), preoperational (2–6 years), concrete operational (6–11 years), and formal operational periods (11 years and older). During the sensorimotor stage, newborns and toddlers rely on their senses for information processing to which they respond with reflexes. In the preoperational stage, children learn through imitation and remain unable to take other people’s point of view. The concrete operational stage is characterized by the developing ability to use logic and to consider multiple factors to solve a problem. The last stage is the formal operational, in which preadolescents and adolescents begin to understand abstract concepts and to develop the ability to create arguments and counter arguments.

Furthermore, adolescence is characterized by a series of changes in the biological, cognitive, and social realms. In the cognitive area, it is worth noting that the brain’s prefrontal cortex as well as the limbic system undergoes important changes. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is active when engaged in complicated cognitive activities such as planning, generating goals and strategies, intuitive decision-making, and metacognition (thinking about thinking). This is consistent with Piaget’s last stage of formal operations (McLeod, 2010). The prefrontal cortex becomes complete between adolescence and early adulthood. The limbic system is the part of the brain that modulates reward sensitivity based on changes in the levels of neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine) and emotions.

In short, cognitive abilities vary according to our development and stages in life. It is at the adult stage that we are better able to be better planners, process and comprehend abstract concepts, and evaluate risks and benefits more aptly than an adolescent or child would be able to.

See also


  • Allen Newell, Unified Theories of Cognition, Harvard University Press (1990).
  • Denning, P. J., & Bell, T. (2012). The Information Paradox. American Scientist, 100(6), 470-477.
  • Horst, Steven, "The Computational Theory of Mind", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  • Lehrl, S., and Fischer, B. (1990). A Basic Information Psychological Parameter (BIP) for the Reconstruction of Concepts of Intelligence. European Journal of Personality, 4, 259-286. Eprint
  • Linden, D. E. (2007). The working memory networks of the human brain. The neuroscientist, 13(3), 257-269. doi: 10.1177/1073858406298480
  • McGonigle, D., & Mastrian, K. (2011). Introduction to information, information science, and information systems. (2 ed., p. 22). Jones & Bartlett Retrieved from
  • McLeod, S. A. (2010). Formal operational - piagetian stage. Retrieved from
  • Nake, F. (1974). Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung. (Aesthetics as information processing). Springer. ISBN 3-211-81216-4, ISBN 978-3-211-81216-7
  • Presnell, F. (1999). Jean piaget. Retrieved from
  • Shannon, C., & Weaver, W. (1963). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Steinberg, L. (2010). Adolescence. 9th. ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2012). Cognitive psychology. (6th ed., pp. 21, 193-205, 212-213). Belmont, California: Wadsworth.
  • (2012). The Free Dictionary. Princeton University: Retrieved from processing

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