Psychology 303: basic cognitive functions: information processing, attention, memory (9-28-16)


information-processing approach uses a computer metaphor (caution about analogies/metaphors/models): information is imputed, transformed, coded, stored, acted on

information-processing model rests on three assumptions (Neisser, 1976)

1. people are active participants in the process

information is transformed based on what you already know about it

2. both quantitative (how much info is remembered) and qualitative (what kinds of info are remembered) can be studied

there are age difference in both how much and what types of data are remembered best under various conditions

3. information is processed through a series of stages/processes

brief sensory memory and attention

active processing that transfers data into longer term storage

retrieval mechanisms

decision making/planning/problem solving mechanisms

Sensory stimuli/experience

Sensory memory: immediate, almost eidetic representation (perception) in brain

large capacity, very short term representation

Speed of processing: how quickly and efficiently these early steps in information processing are completed (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p. 189)

Information processing changes with age

reaction times slow as we age

wide individual differences

degree of decrement usually small (until very advanced age)

very robust finding

Why do we slow with advancing age?

general slowing hypothesis: general decline in information processing speed in aging brain

Timothy Salthouse (1996, 2000; Kail & Salthouse, 1994): processing speed theory of adult age differences in cognition (fluid intelligence)

much experimental date supports this position, although there remains questions as to whether cognitive speed can account for all individual differences (Bors & Forrin, 1995)

changes in white matter (axional connections) may be one contributing factor (Ylikoski et. al, 1993) to changes in attention and processing speed

age-complexity hypothesis: age differences increase with task complexity

Cerella, Poon, & Williams (1980) published influential study suggesting that cognitive slowing differences between younger and older adults were associated with complexity of task

methodological issues regain a challenge to sorting out our clearest answers to these questions


attention governs information flow within other cognitive domains

attentional processes facilitate, enhance, or inhibit other cognitive processes

attention leads to orientation toward particular stimuli or responses (and away from others)

There can be compertition in our brains between two different attentional processes:

Bottom-Up Attention: rapid, demanding, not consciously controlled; survival oriented; almost instantly captures our attention; automatically driven by sensory stimuli and contextual cues

Top Down Attention: effortful, deliberate, conscious: when we direct our focus on a work task; top-down attention reflects our setting our objectives and focusing on them

"Top-down and bottom up attentions are both essential to survival, and so is the balance between them. If we had no top-down attention, we couldn't focus on important goals. But without bottom-up, we wouldn't be alerted to new stimuli, including danger. Imagine a caveman being so focused on building a fire that he never heard the lion coming through the bushes." (Richtel, 2014,p. 106)

sensory selective attention: selection of salient sensory information for further processing

sustained attention (concentration): maintenance of attention over time to stimuli or task

freedom from distraction: inhibition of competing signals

Four components of attention (Cohen, Malloy, Jenkins, Paul, 2006)

SENSORY SELECTIVE ATTENTION: tends to be automatic

filtering: sensitivity or preferences guild perceptual processes

enhancement: attentional readiness and expectancy increases focus

disengagement: attentional shift requires reallocation and requires processing resources

RESONSE SELECTION AND CONTROL: (intention): facilitation of action through selective attention and control of behavioral responding; tend to be effortfull

readiness: mediated by arousal and reinforcement history

expectancy: that a response will be needed at a particular time

anticipatory response: preparatory responses

executive functions are linked to response selection

intention: processes leading to response set and preparation

initiation: processes that start a response

generative capacity: processes that facilitate production of a response

persistence: processes that enable sustained responding

inhibition: processes that prevent or enable cessation of the response

switching: processes that enable a shift from one response to another


focused attention controls the intensity and scope of attentional allocation, thus the cognitive resources directed at a particular task

focus is also a function (is influenced/controlled by or limited by) of processing capacity

attention capacity reflects both motivational and inherent capacity of the system (brain)

motivational (state or situational variables)


reinforcement value

expectation of reinforcement

factors intrinsic to the individual (trait variable)

individual differences in mental abilities

significant variability across people

automatic versus controlled processing

attention may be elicited automatically by some environmental cues; and, once learned, some behaviors require minimal attentional capacity

automaticity refers to capacity to attend to and perform certain operation with minimal effort and without need for active direction

intentional focus to task usually results in reduced automaticity

once learned a task requires less working memory and reduced controlled effortful processing (conscious)

effortful processing, which requires more attentional capacity, usually shows greater age effects in testing results (Hertzog, 2008)


maintenance of optimal performance over time requires sustained attention

vigilance is a form of sustained attention in which there need for a high level of anticipatory readiness for low-probability targets or stimulus events (flight controllers, standing guard, fishing)

sustained attention is a function of task duration (any task can be prolonged until failure occurs), target-distractor ratio (more difficult with rare target events), effortfulness of task (demand for high level of focus are more difficulty to sustain), organism characteristics (arousal, motivation, capacity)

Attentional changes with age

attentional performances/capabilities decline with advancing age

wide individual differences

very robust finding

Why does attentional capacity change with age?

attentional resources theory: aging reduces available cognitive resources

inhibitory deficit hypothesis: aging rduces ability to tune out irrelevant information

context processing deficiency hypothesis: aging reduces the ability to tke context into account

Limits of our attention

the invisible gorilla tapes

texting and driving


Memory: the recall of things past

encoding (learning): how information is entered into the memory system

storage: how information is kept or represented in memory

retrieval: how information is accessed or gotten out of memory when needed

Three-stage mode lof memory

Three-stage model of memory

Sensory storage: sensory stores or buffers [less than a second to seconds]

forgetting results from: decays

Short term memory: conscous awareness of recently perceived events [seconds to minutes; up to 30 seconds]

requires attention to shift from sensory buffer

forgetting results from: displacement

limited capacity: G.A. Miller (1956) & "the magic number seven plus or minus two"

some investigators devide short-term memory into "primary memory" [passive storage in same form it was received in] and "working memory [active processing of information]

Long term memory: evants that have left consciousness but can be retrieved [minutes to hours to decades]

requires rehearsal and elaboration to shift from short term memory

forgetting results from: interference

Working memory: active process which houses and operates on information to deal with a need or challenge/problem (making a decision, learning new information, directing an action); memory tasks which require working with a lot of information at once; active and simultaneous processing and storing of information [some authors include this as part of short term memory]

Baddeley's (2001) model of working memory:



Long-term memories

Explicit Memory (declarative memory): conscious memories, you know and know that you know

episodic memory: memory for past events

semantic memory: language coded memories--word knowledge, facts, ideas

demand memory (point retrival): word finding, name finding

remote memory: memories from the distant past

source memory: recall of contextual information; how did you learn, how do you know this?

autobiographical memory: recollection of your personal history

prospective memory: recall of events which need to be performed in the future/recall in the present of actions you decided to perform in the past

flashbulb memory: recall of dramatic/highly emotional or meaningful events from your life

short-term memory: recall of information from the near past

visual-spatial or nonverbal memory: recognition or duplication of designs, movements, spatial orientations

Implicit Memory (non-declarative memory): retrieval of information without conscious or intentional recollection

procedural memory: remembering how to perform a skill you have learned

priming effects: prior exposure to a stimulus makes it a more likely response (and may underlie some unconscious emotional responses)

sentence completion tasks, such as: "Say the first word that comes to mind to complete this word: 'con____'"; prior exposure to material showing the word "contest" versus "contract" influences the likelihood of the responses (Zacks et al., 2000)

Assessment of memory

recall: retrieval of previously learned information "without hints or cues": "What is the capital of . . . . ?", "What is that person's name?"

What counts as "hints or cues"

task characteristics

contextual information

recognition: selection of the previously learned information from among a group: "Aren't you in my Adult Development class?", "What brand of butter was it that my partner asked me to bring home for dinner?"

distractors or foils

context again

performance effects: "Lets see if I remember how to do this."

Memory changes with age

some memory performances decline more with advancing age, some memory performances are relative stable (until very advanced age and/or dementing disease)

relative "hold" memories

semantic memory (but younger subjects may tend to remember more details)

procedural memory

implicit memory (maybe, some conflict in literature)

autobiographical memory (events but not sequence)

flashbulb memory (but even these recollections can be influenced)

relative "don't hold" memories

episodic memory

source memory (often lost)

point ret rival (visual naming, immediate situational demands)

prospective memory

Why do memory performances change (or not change) with age?

attentional changes (storage problems--learning problems)

learning changes (storage problems--learning problems)

shift to less efficient encoding strategies (conceptual grouping, rehearsal)

retrieval changes (interference problems)

false memories

expectance/belief changes (psychological issues): "memory controllability"--beliefs about our memory and/or aging effects on memory

"I don't think you can, I don't think you can, I don't think you can . . . . you can't!"

"I don't think I can, I don't think I can, I don't think I can . . . . I can't!"

Enhancement of memory

trait and state aspects of learning and recall

trait: individual differences

trait: modestly stable

trait: clearly influenced by general health, exercise, diet, mental activity

state: influenced by motivation, arousal, current health, emotional state (anxiety, depression)

state: influenced by expectation, belief, social variables (stereotype threat)

systematic training

programs designed to improve memory in older adults do produce improved memory performance

both objective memory performance (.73 standard deviations: greater than rest [.38] or placebo [.37], meta-analysis by Verhaeghen, Marcoen, & Goosens (1992)

and person's subjective evaluation (approximately .2 standard deviations, meta-analysis by Floyd & Scogin (1997)

no one type of training is superior (Verhaghen et al., 1992; Rasmusson et al., 1999)

often use visual association with locations (loci method) or words (peg word method)

these techniques have been used by orators since ancient Roma (and possibly before)

no evidence that "general purpose memory" improved by these training methods; they work by teaching strategies used for remembering and retrieving specific information, not by affecting general processing speed or neuroplasticity