The mind as a natural information processing system

Greg Ashman ends his blog Do not think of a white bear saying that

…knowledge in long-term memory is much more than a metaphorical set of books in a library. We use it to think with. We use it to direct our attention. Although most of the schemas in long-term memory that people think with will have been developed when young or through the processes of socialisation, the ones we develop in school are still important. They do not just add to what students know but shape the way they think. That implies teachers have a significant responsibility when they choose what concepts to teach.
According to cognitive load theory, both evolution and the human mind are ‘natural information processing systems’. They possess a store of information that changes over time in response to constraints imposed by the environment. No other agents are needed to direct these affairs.”

I’d like to take this a step further with a piece of an article that I wrote with Jimmy Zambrano, Femke Kirschner (yes, the daughter of), and John Sweller From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory describing our mind as a natural information processing system and the principles underlying it. BTW: Don’t look for the references here. All of the articles cited can be found in the article itself which is open access.

Human Cognitive Architecture

The manner in which biologically secondary knowledge is processed by the human cognitive system is analogous to the way in which evolution by natural selection processes information. Both are examples of natural information processing systems (Sweller & Sweller[1], 2006) which can be described using five principles summarised in Table 1.

Information storeStore information in long-term memory for indefinite periods
Borrowing and reorganisingPermit the rapid building of a long-term memory store by borrowing information from another person’s long-term memory
Randomness as genesisCreate novel ideas
Narrow limits of changeUse limited working memory to process novel information
Environmental organising and linkingUse environmental signals to transfer organised information from long-term memory to working memory in order to effect appropriate action
Table 1. Natural information processing system principles

The information store principle indicates that in order to function, natural information processing systems require an enormous store of information. Long-term memory provides that store for primary and secondary knowledge in the case of human cognition. The finding that skilled performance in any complex area requires the memorisation of tens of thousands of problem states and the best moves for each state (De Groot & Gobet, 1996; Egan & Schwartz, 1979; Jeffries, Turner, Polson, & Atwood, 1981; Sweller & Cooper, 1985) provided evidence for the importance of long-term memory to general cognition. The ability to store information in long-term memory is a biologically primary skill that does not need to be taught.

The second principle, the borrowing and reorganising principle, suggests that most of the information acquired by and stored in long-term memory is borrowed from the long-term memories of other people. We imitate others, listen to what they say and read what they write. Once information is acquired from others, it is reorganised by us using information previously stored in our long-term memory (Bartlett, 1932).

For the purpose of this article, there are two aspects of this principle that need to be noted. First, borrowing and reorganising knowledge from others does not need to be taught because it is biologically primary. We are one of the few species that has evolved to obtain information from others (Brownell, Ramani, & Zerwas, 2006). Second, collaborative learning makes use of the borrowing and reorganising principle and is one of the justifications for hypothesising that collaboration can be effective for learning. During collaboration, we can obtain important information from others that may be difficult to obtain by other means. Of course, while most explicit instruction, both oral and written, also makes use of this principle, collaboration differs from non-collaborative instructional methods because there may be a greater emphasis on the reorganising aspect of this principle.

The randomness as genesis principle explains how information is first generated. If we are unable to obtain needed information from others, we need to use our primary skills to generate information ourselves during problem solving. In the absence of sources that allow us to borrow required information, we must randomly generate problem-solving moves and test them for their effectiveness. Again, this procedure is biologically primary and does not need to be formally taught. We have evolved to use general problem-solving strategies and to generate moves randomly and test them for effectiveness.

The fact that the randomness as genesis principle is used in important activities such as research does not justify its use when information can readily be borrowed from others. Problem solving is only useful when we do not have alternative access to problem solutions. Under the right circumstances, collaborative learning can provide that access by increasing the range of information available to us.

The randomness as genesis principle has functional implications for the cognitive system, leading to the fourth principle, namely the narrow limits of change principle. In order to avoid combinatorial overload and explosions, we need a structure that limits the number of elements of information that we can consider at one time. Those limits are imposed by our working memory that is severely limited in both capacity (Miller, 1956) and duration (Peterson & Peterson, 1959). It needs to be noted that those limits only apply to novel information and not to familiar information retrieved from long-term memory, as will be discussed under the next principle. It also needs to be noted that collaborative learning may ameliorate some of the limitations of working memory (F. Kirschner, Paas, & Kirschner, 2011) and especially that of asynchronous CSCL where written text is often used which may lead to cognitive offloading (Hmelo-Silver, 2002; Suthers, 2006). By having multiple working memories working together on the same task, the effective capacity of the multiple working memories may be increased due to a collective working memory effect that is discussed in more detail below.

The environmental organising and linking principle is the fifth principle and provides a justification of the preceding principles. Signals from the environment trigger the transfer of appropriate information from long-term memory to working memory. That information can then be used to generate action. While working memory is limited when dealing with novel information, it has no known limits when dealing with organised information from the information store of long-term memory. Based on this principle, we are transformed by our ability to marshal large amounts of information transferred from long-term memory to working memory. These large amounts of information from long-term memory can be held in working memory indefinitely giving us an ability to carry out actions that otherwise we could not consider. Accordingly, one of the primary aims of instruction is to help learners to accumulate the large stores of secondary knowledge and skills in long-term memory for later use. Collaborative learning aims to facilitate that procedure by increasing our ability to collectively process novel information.

[1] Yes, the wife of.