Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The more I think about it, the more I think that we have missed something in cognitive psychology. We have been obsessed with information processing, as though all information were somehow the same, and as though presentation didn't matter. True, most experimental approaches, and theories, now allow for a degree of influence from format - i.e. we know that HOW something is presented makes a difference to HOW MUCH is retained. But our understanding of memory, particularly long term memory, seems to be inhibited by an inability to move beyond a basic concept of 'information processing'.

The problem has partly, in my view, been caused by the linguistic convention, in psychology, of calling memorizing 'encoding'. This gives us a picture in our minds of a mind soaking up line after line of computer code, as though everything were reducible to some kind of binary, sequential 'code' which is passed into and through our mind like machine code through a computer. However, if we really 'encoded' all incoming signals in this way, then we would find facial recognition an astonishingly difficult task, whereas in fact facial recognition is something we are quite good at from early childhood. There must be something else going on - some other way of processing incoming signals which has little to do with sequential processing, and a lot to do with 'all-at-once' processing.

I believe that the best name for this second type of input is 'conformation'. The idea was inspired several months ago by a visit to a design exhibition (see an earlier blog). A group of designers had considered using the shapes of map routes between locations, as the basis for jewellery. They thought they might then print out the routes in solid material, using a 3D printer, and see what the results looked like. When I heard this idea, I felt that, probably, each route would produce a uniquely recognizable piece of jewellery, with its own character. Somehow, the mind would absorb the 'conformation', without necessarily having to do any sequential coding. In fact, I thought that this type of recognition was so different from traditionally described 'information processing' that the underlying abstract format deserved a different name.

In fact, we can see the basis for these two types of format in traditional models of working memory. Conventional models of how we think still suggest that we use two main slave devices: an articulatory loop, and a visuo-spatial sketchpad. The articulatory loop is what helps us to manage heard speech - it is regarded as largely sequential in nature. This approximates to a main use of the word 'information'. The second slave device, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, is what helps us, for instance, to remember patterns. A good example of these two slave devices in action, is when we input a pin code for a credit card. The articulatory loop can recite the number; the visuo-spatial sketchpad knows the pattern on the keyboard. One manages the information, the other the conformation. Sometimes we can even input our pin number without reciting it to ourselves - merely the sight of the keypad is enough for us, in a flash, to know what we are doing.

Conformational thinking, then, can be incredibly fast, and approximates, in a way, to intuition. It is so fast that it does not rely on conscious, laborious processing, but can spot a 'conformation', a recognizable arrangement of objects or events, at a glance, and identify and react accordingly. In future blogs, I'll probably come back to this, but suffice it to say, for the moment, that this 'rapid recognition device' is, in part, emotionally-driven - we get a 'feeling' that we recognize something. This is important, because, although conformational thinking is very effective in helping us find a way through our surroundings, it can act against us at certain times. If we are emotionally driven, through past traumas, to interpret scenes very quickly in emotionally-enhanced ways, then we can find ourselves 'out of control' in our immediate reactions to events. We see a pattern, and we immediately recognize and react. This type of behaviour is seen in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a useful warning system from our earlier evolution - but we need to return, at these times, to the concept of 'information' to balance ourselves. Cognitive Behavioural Therapists, then, will try to remind traumatised patients of the 'informational' truths of a situation. In this way, clients who are reacting emotionally to 'conformations', causing their minds to run wild with assumptions, can gain better control over their behaviour, by slowing themselves down, and returning to more laborious, serial, 'informational' processing. This is why talking can be good - it uses our articulatory loop (see above), and returns us to a shared, social way of thinking which avoids us 'jumping to conclusions', and 'grounds' us in a more healthy relationship with others.