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Module 11: Complementary Cognitive Processes – Attention and Memory


Module Overview

Module 11 covers the second of the four complementary cognitive process — memory. Before we even get to this, we discuss another important cognitive processes — attention. Simply, if we are not paying attention no amount of learning will occur. But if we are and learning occurs, we can demonstrate our newfound knowledge after some time has passed showing that it made its way into long term memory. If we struggle with this task, then forgetting has occurred.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Describe attention and clarify why it is important to the cognitive process of learning.
  • Define memory and outline its three types.
  • Clarify the types of errors we make in relation to memory.
  • Hypothesize reasons why we forget.

11.1. Attention: Deciding What to Dedicate Cognitive Resources To


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define attention.
  • Clarify what it means to be distracted.
  • Clarify the role of the central executive.
  • Define selective attention.
  • Explain how the concepts of processing capacity and perceptual load explain how attention can be focused and not distracted.
  • Describe inattentional blindness.
  • Differentiate repetition and change blindness.
  • Hypothesize whether attention can be divided.
  • Explain the importance of attention for learning.


11.1.1. What We Attend To

Attention is our ability to focus on certain aspects of our environment at the exclusion of others. Despite this, we can be distracted, or when one stimulus interferes with our attending to another. So how do we choose what to attend to? Baddeley (1996) proposed that attention is controlled by what he called the central executive. It tells us where to focus our attention and can even home in on specific aspects of a stimulus such as the tone in a speaker’s voice, color in someone’s face, a noxious smell, or peculiar taste.

We can even use selective attention to voluntarily focus on specific sensory input from our environment (Freiwald & Kanwisher, 2004). As such, we might choose to focus on an aspect of a professor’s lecture when it is interesting but begin paying attention more to people walking by in the hallway if it becomes boring and dry.

Our ability to focus our attention and not become distracted by outside stimuli is a function of our processing capacity — how much information we can handle, and perceptual load — how difficult a task is. Low-load tasks use up only a small amount of our processing capacity while high-load tasks use up much more. Lavie’s load theory of attention (Lavie et al., 2004) posits that we can attend to task-irrelevant stimuli since only some of our cognitive resources have been used when engaged in low-load tasks, but high load tasks do not leave us any resources to process other stimuli.


Before moving on, check the following out:



Note: If you did not actually watch the short video, the next section will not make sense.


11.1.2. Issues with Attention

Did you count the number of passes correctly? Likely not, and if this is true, it is due to the phenomena of inattentional blindness or when we miss a stimulus clearly present in our visual field when our attention is focused on a task (Simons & Chabris, 1999). In the video, you were presented with 2, three-person basketball teams who were passing the ball to other members of their team. One team wore white shirts and the other black. The participant had to count the number of times members of one of the two teams passed the ball to other team members, all while ignoring the other team. During this, a person wearing a gorilla suit walks through the basketball game, stopping to turn in the direction of the camera and thump its chest. Only half of the participants see the gorilla walk through. Did you?


Visit the Invisible Gorilla website to learn more about this study: http://theinvisiblegorilla.com


Two other types of blindness are worth mentioning too, and not in relation to problems in the visual sensory system. First, repetition blindness is when we experience a reduction in the ability to perceive repeated stimuli if flashed rapidly before our eyes. Say for example a series of numbers are flashed in rapid succession and during this string, the number 3 is flashed four times in a row. You may recall only seeing 3 one time, not four. Is it because we cannot visually separate the numbers? No. If the same experiment was repeated with letters, and in the midst of a string of letters you saw R r, you would believe only one R/r was presented to you.

Second, change blindness occurs when two pictures are flashed before our eyes in rapid succession. If the second picture differs slightly from the first, you will not see the difference as well as you could if presented side-by-side. The effect is stronger when the change is not in the central portion of the picture but in a peripheral area.


11.1.3. Can We Divide Our Attention?

So, can we successfully divide our attention or focus on more than one stimulus at a time? Results of several experiments show that it is possible to successfully divide our attention for tasks that we have practiced numerous times, but as the task becomes more difficult this ability quickly declines (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977). Of course, dividing our attention comes with risks, especially where driving and texting are concerned. Finley, Benjamin, & McCarley (2014) found that people can anticipate the costs of multitasking, but do not believe they are personally vulnerable to the risks compared to other people.


11.1.4. The Importance of Attention for Learning

Before moving on I hope you can see why attention is important to learning. Consider that a dog must hear the bell which leads to salivation (recall that the bell has become a CS because it was associated with the US of food). For the animal to ever learn the association (CS-NS), it must be paying attention. One of the limits of observational learning is that the organism needs to attend to the model. If it is not, then the model’s behavior will never be imitated later. Observational learning is important to respondent and operant conditioning as well. If we do well on our test and our parents say, ‘Great job,’ though the comment is a PR, if we do not pay attention to it from the start, we will not yield its reinforcing effect.

Attention is relevant to all three learning models discussed in this class. Think of it another way. If your boss is showing you how to use the new cash register and your mind is wandering and thinking about your big date that night, you will not learn how to use the machine, and likely frustrate your boss. This does not imply you are intellectually unable to learn how to use the cash register, only that in this moment, you are not paying him or her any attention.

11.2. Memory: Demonstrating That We Have Learned


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define memory.
  • Describe the three stages of memory.
  • Review the web resources on ways to improve your memory, and subsequently your learning of the material.
  • Describe for yourself, based on the information in this section, the relevance of memory as a complementary cognitive process to learning.


11.2.1. What is Memory?

In this class, you have likely already taken a few quizzes or exams. As you completed each, you had to draw the information it asked about from your storehouse of information that we typically refer to as memory, whether you were trying to recall dates, names, ideas, or a procedure. Simply, memory is the cognitive process we use to retain and retrieve information for later use. Two subprocesses are listed in this definition — retain and retrieve. The former is when we encode, consolidate, and store information. The latter is when we extract this information and use it in some way.

You might think of memory as a file cabinet. If you have one at home you use it to store information, or pieces of paper, away for use at a later time. Hopefully, your system of filing this information is good and you can easily find a document when you need it again. Our memory operates in the same general way. We take pieces of information and place them in this file cabinet. We should know in what drawer, in which hanging folder, and then where in the folder our information is. If we do, we find the information and use it when we need it again, such as during an exam. If we do not, well, we hit a stumbling block and may spend minutes staring at the wall or ceiling trying to figure out where the information is. As you will soon come to see, the cabinet represents long-term memory (LTM) and when we pull information from it, we move it into a special type of short-term memory (STM) called working memory.


11.2.2. Stages of Memory

Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) proposed a three-stage model of memory which said that memory proceeds from sensory, to short-term, and finally to long-term memory. First, sensory memory holds all incoming sensory information detected from our environment for a very short period of time (i.e. a few seconds or even a fraction of a second). Second, short-term memory (STM) holds a limited amount of information for a slightly longer period (about 15 to 20 seconds). Third, long-term memory (LTM) holds a great deal of information for an indefinite period, possibly for decades (consider that the elderly can recall events from childhood if properly motivated). When we say we have learned, this is what we are talking about. We are saying that it has been stored in LTM for later use. Let’s tackle each briefly. Sensory memory. Information obtained from our five sensory organs moves to sensory memory, also called the sensory register.  This memory system has a near unlimited capacity but information fades from it very quickly. For instance, visual stimuli are stored in what is called the iconic register but only lasts here for a fraction of a second (Sperling, 1960) while auditory information is stored in the echoic register for a few seconds (Darwin et al., 1972). Short-term memory (STM). Our second memory system holds information for about 15-20 seconds (Peterson & Peterson, 1959; Brown, 1958) meaning that what you just read in the sensory memory section is still in your STM. Likely what you read in Section 11.1 is no longer present. Also, the capacity of STM has been found to be 5 to 9 items (Miller, 1956) with the average being 7.  Miller (1956) also proposed that we can take larger lists of unrelated and meaningless material and group them into smaller, meaningful units in a process called chunking. For example, if you were given a list of states to include Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maine, Oregon, California, Maryland, South Dakota, Florida, Nebraska, and Arizona, you could group them as follows:

  • Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Florida falling on the east coast
  • Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona falling on the west coast
  • Kansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska falling in the middle of the country

Alone, the list of 11 items exceeds our capacity for STM but making three smaller lists falls on the short side of our capacity and no list itself has more than 6 items, still within the limits.

Our STM also holds information retrieved from long term memory to be used temporarily, sort of like taking the information from the file cabinet and placing it on a table. We call this working memory (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Once finished with the information, it is returned to the file cabinet for future use. It is important to point out the word use in the definition. By use, it is implied that the information is manipulated in some way which makes it distinct from STM which just involves a mechanism of temporary storage. Long-term memory (LTM). As the name indicates, information stored in this memory system is retained for a long period of time with the ability to be retrieved when needed. There seems to be no time limit for LTM and when people use the word memory, it is LTM they are referring to. There are two specific types of LTM — implicit and explicit. First, implicit memory includes knowledge based on prior experience and is called nondeclarative. An example is a procedural memory or memory of how to complete a task such as make a grilled cheese sandwich, ride a bike, or ring up a customer on a cash register. Second, explicit memory includes the knowledge of facts and events. This type is said to be declarative as it can be deliberately accessed. It includes semantic memory or memory of facts such as what the definition of semantic memory is, and episodic memory or the memory of a personally experienced event. Again, in the case of either semantic or episodic memory, you must declare it. The knowledge is not automatic.

The serial position effect states that we recall information falling at the beginning (called primary) and end (called recency) of a list better than the information in the middle. Think about the most recent lecture you attended. What do you remember best? Likely, you remember what the professor said when class started such as if he/she made a few quick announcements or did a review of previously covered material and at the end in terms of final comments or a summary of new material. We remember the information presented first likely since it has had time to make its way into LTM because we could rehearse it (Rundus, 1971). As for the end of a list, we likely recall it because it is still in STM and accessible to us (Glanzer & Cunitz, 1966).

LTM includes four main steps — encoding, consolidation, storage, and retrieval. First, encoding is when we pay attention to and take in information that can then be processed or moved to LTM. This processing is either automatic or done with little effort such as remembering what we had for lunch today or is effortful and requires us to commit cognitive resources such as remembering the vocabulary (bolded terms) in this module.

According to the levels of processing theory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), our memory is dependent on the depth of processing that information receives. It can be shallow or not involving any real attention to meaning, such as saying the phone number of a person you just met at a party repeatedly, or is deep, indicating you pay close attention to the information and apply some type of meaning to it.

The next step in the process is consolidation or when we stabilize and solidify a memory (Muller & Pilzecker, 1900). Sleep is important for consolidation and is the reason why studying all night before a test the next day really does not help much (Gais, Lucas, & Born, 2006). The third step is storage and involves creating a permanent record of the information. This record has to be logically created so that we can find the information later and in the final part of the process called retrieval.


Improving Your Learning – Memory Techniques

All students struggle with test-taking from time to time and this usually centers on how they go about studying for exams. Below are some websites with useful tips for studying, and some of the strategies have been mentioned already in Section 11.2. Enjoy.



11.3. Memory Errors and Forgetting


Section Learning Objectives

  • Outline the seven sins of memory.
  • Define forgetting.
  • Define retention interval.
  • List ways to measure forgetting.
  • Clarify how amnesia and interference lead to forgetting.


11.3.1. Memory Errors

In his book, “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers,” Schacter (2002) outlines seven major categories of memory errors broken down into three sins of omission or forgetting and four sins of commission or distortions in our memories.

The sins of omission include:

  • Transience or when our memories decrease in accessibility over time.
  • Absent-mindedness or when we forget to do things or have a lapse of attention such as not remembering where we put our keys.
  • Blocking or when we experience the tip-of-the-tongue phenomena and just cannot remember something. The stored information is temporarily inaccessible.

The sins of commission include:

  • Suggestibility or when false memories are created due to deception or leading questions.
  • Bias or when current knowledge, beliefs, and feelings skew our memory of past events such as only remembering the bad times and not the good ones after a relationship has come to a tragic end.
  • Persistence or when unwanted memories continue and are not forgotten such as in the case of PTSD.
  • Misattribution or when we believe a memory comes from one source when it really came from another source.

For more on these sins, please visit: https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct03/sins.aspx


11.3.2. Forgetting Defining forgetting. Forgetting can be defined as a reduction in how well we perform learned behaviors. In the spirit of this definition, you are trained one day on the new register and do well, but after a two-day weekend, you return to work and cannot remember how to execute some of the procedures that you previously learned. The two-day weekend represents what is called a retention interval or a period during which you are not practicing what you previously learned.

You might also think of it as an inability to recall or remember something that should be remembered, such as forgetting who the founder of Behaviorism was when taking your principles of learning exam. Or maybe you cannot remember what you ate for breakfast this very morning when asked by a friend or your mother (calling to check on you). Measuring forgetting. Forgetting can be measured in a few different ways. First, we can use what is called free recall or asking the person to demonstrate what they previously learned. Your boss might ask you to ring up a few customers when you first get to work after your weekend to demonstrate that you remember how to do it. Or you might test your understanding of the neural impulse which was covered in Module 10 by describing what happens across its three “parts.” Failing to solve the problem or recite the steps in the neural impulse represents that forgetting occurred and additional training/learning is needed.

Recall from our discussion of operant conditioning that prompts are often used to help someone learn and a prompt delay could be used in which the person is asked to perform a task and prompts are only delivered if he or she has trouble doing so, such as asking your son or daughter to solve the first math problem assigned for homework. If he cannot you might verbally tell him what to do or model it by doing the first problem. This is a procedure for measuring forgetting called prompted or cued recall.

Another way to measure forgetting, or what we know, is the most common way to test material in both grade school and college courses — the multiple-choice test. Students are presented with a definition, say, and then a list of four choices. One of the four is the word the definition is of and three are distractors. Students demonstrate that they remember the information if they can correctly pick out the word, or recognize it, from the list of distractors. If they do not, then we can say they forgot the material. Of course, a problem with multiple-choice style exams is that a student can guess and get the question right. This suggests that they did not forget when they actually did. Why we forget? Forgetting can occur for several reasons. In the memory errors section, we mentioned transience or memory fading due to the passage of time. Forgetting can also occur due to amnesia or a condition in which an individual is unable to remember what happened either shortly before (retrograde) or after (anterograde) a head injury.

Forgetting could occur due to interference or when information that is similar to other information interferes in either storage or retrieval. Interference can be proactive as when old information interferes with new or retroactive in which new information interferes with old. Proactive interference explains why students have trouble understanding the concepts of positive and negative correlations and positive and negative reinforcement/punishment. Our previous education taught us that positive implies something good and negative something bad. Our new learning shows that positive can mean moving in the same direction and negative means moving in opposite directions as in the case of correlations, or that positive means giving and negative means taking away in respect to reinforcement and punishment. Again, our previous learning interferes with new learning. When you take an abnormal psychology class you will see a third use of positive and negative in relation to the symptoms of schizophrenia. No symptom of this disease is good, so the words positive and negative have no affective connotation yet again, but this previous learning will make our new understanding a bit more challenging to gain.


Module Recap

We are now through with our second of the four major cognitive processes that are related to learning. In this module, we discussed memory, as well as the process of attention. Reasons why these two cognitive processes are important were outlined, and memory is really the most complementary process to learning, in the same way sensation and perception are linked. In a way, attention is important to these two cognitive processes also as if we are not paying attention, we will not perceive anything. Sensation may still occur as sensory memory shows.

We now move to a discussion of language and then learning concepts to round out Part VI. Enjoy.

2nd edition


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