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How do we interact with and process information in our daily lives? Psychologists use the theory of information processing to explain it. They also use the theory to talk about our stages of memory.

What Is Information Processing?

When you look at your computer, do you think of your brain? It might sound like a strange idea, but it’s pretty much the connection psychologists have drawn in the development of the information processing theory. With the momentum of technology in the past few decades, there have been comparisons made between the way a computer operates and the way our mind does.

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Just as a computer receives, stores and brings up information, so do our minds as we live day by day. As the theory outlines, there are four steps in processing and handling events from our surroundings: attending, encoding, storing and retrieving.

Stages of Information Processing

Let’s follow Jessica’s story in order to watch the process unfold.

Jessica is 16 years old. She goes to visit her grandmother today, and they talk once again about her goals to become a doctor. Her face lights up as her grandmother tells her she is going to be a wonderful doctor and help so many people. She says, ‘Remember, Jessica, you can do anything you want if you keep believing in yourself.’Years go by, and Jessica never forgets her grandmother’s words of encouragement. When she is a senior in college, she becomes very discouraged by her difficult classes and worries about getting into med school. But every time she wonders if she can achieve her goal, she reminds herself of her grandmother’s words.

In fact, she will remember those words even once she becomes a doctor. Jessica went through all the stages of information processing in her time with her grandmother and thereafter.The first stage she went through was attending.

In this stage, she was listening and paying close attention to her grandmother’s words that she could do whatever she wanted if she believed in herself. When we attend or focus on an event or a conversation, we are preparing ourselves to receive it.The second stage Jessica went through was encoding. This is what happened when she was taking in her grandmother’s words. If she was neither paying attention to them nor placing any importance on them, she would not have encoded them.The third stage was storing.

In this stage, her grandmother’s words were entering her memory bank, ready to be called upon at some other time.The final stage was retrieving. This happened when Jessica went through a tough time in college and looked back on her grandmother’s words, bringing them up to her conscious awareness. She retrieved this information in order to use it.

Three Stages of Memory

A huge part of information processing is its description of memory. The theory lists three stages of our memory that work together in this order: sensory memory, short-term or working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory Memory

This initial stage involves our senses picking up on features from our environment.

It occurs only for a few seconds before it is brought into our memory. For example, Jessica probably smelled the apple pie her grandmother was baking in the oven while they were having their conversation. If this was a common occurrence when she was at her grandmother’s house, the sensory memory would be stored, and every time she smelled baked apple pie, she would feel like she was back there again.

Short-Term Memory

This second stage is the first stop for incoming information. It holds only a certain amount of information for a brief amount of time, unless there is further processing into long-term memory. It is also referred to as one’s working memory, as it serves any number of functions like remembering phone numbers, plans for the day, etc. Jessica made plans earlier in the week to meet with her grandmother and didn’t use a planner, but the date and time remained in her short-term memory.

Long-Term Memory

In this stage, the information we’ve received becomes implanted in our minds.

There is no limit to the amount and types of information we can retain in this storehouse. We are not aware of every memory we have stored, but they are still there, simply not triggered. Jessica may not spend any time thinking of her grandmother’s words during her career as a doctor. Until that is, the memory is triggered by, let’s say, people telling her they won’t be able to do this or that with their future.

Retaining Information

While these stages display the order in which we interact with and retain information, they do not simply take place as we experience daily events.

Not everything we experience goes directly into our short- or long-term memory. In order for us to absorb the information around us and then take it into our levels of memory, there are certain things we have to do. These include using selective attention, maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal.

Selective Attention

Before we take in some kind of information around us, we have to use our selective attention.

This means blocking out other distractions and concentrating on one thing. When Jessica was talking to her grandmother, there could have been loud noises coming from the outside window. The television could have been on in the background.When her grandmother was talking, Jessica could have focused in on those other sounds or dismissed her words, in which case she would not have paid the attention necessary for her to receive the message.

But she chose to focus on the statement. After focusing, Jessica would then have to rehearse the statement in order to retain it.

Maintenance Rehearsal

In order to get and keep information in our short-term memory, we have to do what’s called maintenance rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal involves repeating information mentally over and over. Many of us have experienced studying for a test or quiz and repeating definitions over and over. This is an example of rehearsing information so it stays in our mind.Rehearsing keeps information in our short-term, or working, memory, and with repeated rehearsal over time, material can enter our long-term memory.

In order to increase the likelihood that information will be remembered long-term, we combine maintenance rehearsal with elaborative rehearsal.

Elaborative Rehearsal

During elaborative rehearsal, we are bringing information further into our minds by relating it to ideas and concepts that are already in our long-term memory. In other words, we make connections between what we are picking up and what we have already picked up. In Jessica’s case, maybe she related what her grandmother told her about being able to achieve anything to her father’s career story of going from the janitor to the manager of a company. If she made that connection when she heard from her grandmother, it can hold even more significance to her and therefore be even more memorable.

Lesson Summary

To review, information processing is a theory that describes the stages that occur when we interact with and take in various kinds of information from our daily environment. These stages in order include attending, encoding, storing, retrieving.

Information processing also talks about three stages of receiving information into our memory. These include sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.In order to keep information in our short-term, or working, memory, we need to rehearse it. And in order to bring information into our long-term memory, we need to rehearse it through elaborative rehearsing, or making connections with already obtained information.

Learning Outcome

After watching this lesson, you should be able to explain the stages of information processing and receiving information into our memory.

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