A particularly influential trend within cognitivism has been the theory of information processing, which compares the human mind with a computer to develop models that explain how cognitive processes work and how they determine behaviour.

In this article we will describe the main approaches and models of information processing theory . We will also make a brief historical review of the concept of the human being as a machine, proposed by all kinds of theorists for centuries but which reached its peak with the appearance of this approach.

The theory of information processing

The theory of information processing is a set of psychological models that conceive the human being as an active processor of the stimuli (information or "inputs") that he obtains from his environment. This vision is opposed to the passive conception of people that characterizes other orientations, such as behaviorism and psychoanalysis.

These models are encompassed in cognitivism, a paradigm that argues that thoughts and other mental content influence behavior and must be distinguished from it. They became popular in the 1950s as a reaction to the behaviouralist stance, predominant at the time, which conceived of mental processes as forms of behaviour.

The research and theoretical models developed within the framework of this perspective have been applied to a large number of mental processes. It is worth noting the particular emphasis on cognitive development ; from the theory of information processing, both the brain structures themselves and their relationship with maturation and socialization are analyzed.

Theorists of this orientation defend a fundamentally progressive conception of cognitive development, which is opposed to cognitive-evolutionary models based on stages, such as that of Jean Piaget, which focus on the qualitative changes that appear as children grow (and which are also recognized from information processing).

The human being as a computer

The models arising from this approach are based on the metaphor of the mind as a computer ; in this sense the brain is conceived as the physical support, or hardware, of cognitive functions (memory, language, etc.), which would be equivalent to programs or software. Such an approach serves as a skeleton for these theoretical proposals.

Computers are information processors that respond to the influence of "internal states", the software, which can therefore be used as a tool to operate the contents and mental processes of people. In this way, the aim is to extract hypotheses about human cognition from its non-observable manifestations.

Information processing begins with the reception of stimuli (inputs in computer language) through the senses. Then we actively encode the information in order to give it meaning and to be able to combine it with the information stored in long-term memory. Finally an output is executed.

Evolution of this metaphor

Different authors have drawn attention to the similarities between people and machines throughout history. Thomas Hobbes’ ideas, for example, manifest a vision of people as "machine animals" which was also taken up by the father of behaviorism, John Watson, and other representatives of this orientation, such as Clark L. Hull.

Alan Turing, mathematician and computer scientist , published in 1950 the article “Computational machinery and intelligence”, in which he described what would later be known as artificial intelligence. His work had a great influence in the field of scientific psychology, favouring the appearance of models based on the metaphor of the computer.

The psychological proposals of a computational type never became hegemonic in themselves; however, they gave way to the “cognitive revolution” , which was rather a natural progression from the American mediatic behaviorism, with which the mental processes had already been added to the basic approaches of the behaviorist tradition.

Models and main authors

We will now summarize four of the most influential models that have emerged in the framework of information processing theory.

Together these proposals explain many of the phases of information processing, in which memory plays a particularly important role.

1. The Atkinson and Shiffrin multi-warehouse model

In 1968 Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin proposed a model that divided memory into three components (“programs”, from the metaphor of the computer): the sensory register, which allows the entry of information, a short-term store that would become known as “short-term memory” and another long-term one, long-term memory.

2. Craik and Lockhart’s processing levels

Soon after, in 1972, Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart added to the multi-warehouse model the idea that information can be processed in increasing degrees of depth depending on whether we only perceive it or also pay attention to it, categorize it and/or give it meaning. Deep processing, as opposed to superficial, favours learning .

3. The Rumelhart and McClelland connectionist model

In 1986 these authors published “Parallel distributed processing: research on the microstructure of cognition”, which is still a fundamental reference book in this approach. In this work they presented their model of the neuronal networks of information storage , supported by scientific research.

4. Baddeley’s multi-component model

Alan Baddeley’s (1974, 2000) proposal currently dominates the cognitive perspective on working memory. Baddeley describes a central executive system that monitors the inputs obtained through receptive language (phonological loop), images and literacy (visuospatial agenda). The episodic buffer would be equivalent to short-term memory.

Bibliographic references:

  • Leahey, T. H. (2004). History of Psychology, 6th Edition. Madrid: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Atkinson, R. C. & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). “Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K. W. & Spence, J. T. (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 2). New York: Academic Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D. & Hitch, G. (1974). “Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: advances in research and theory (Vol. 8). New York: Academic Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Science, 4: 417-423.
  • Craik, F. I. M. & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(6): 671-84.
  • Rumelhart, D. E., McClelland, J. L. & PDP Research Group (1987). Procesamiento distribuido en paralelo: exploraciones en la microestructura de la cognición. Cambridge, Massachussets: MIT Press.