Ali teaches college courses in Psychology, a course on how to teach in higher education, and has a doctorate degree in Cognitive Neuroscience.
The Five Psychological Processes
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. This can include many things, from how children learn a native language to how one finds a car in a crowded parking lot. Even the simplest human activities involve complex psychological processing.
When human behavior is so complex, where is a psychologist to start? Just like how a mechanic looks under the hood of a car to examine the function of each component in the engine, psychologists often start by examining the mind's underlying processes. Each of these basic psychological processes has a function, and they all work together to produce complex human behavior.
Let's take a look at five of the most basic psychological processes - sensation, perception, attention, learning, and memory - and how they contribute to the mind and human behavior.
Most people know that we have five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. However, did you realize that everything we know about the world around us comes through those five senses? Everything! If you find that hard to believe, stop for a moment and close your eyes, plug your ears, and imagine you can't feel the clothes on your body or the seat beneath you. Of course, also make sure you aren't enjoying a snack or sitting next to your buddy who hasn't taken a shower in a few days.
What do you notice? Or better yet, what do you notice once you unplug your ears, open your eyes, and return to the world of sensation?
It is easy to fall under the impression that the mind is an open window to the world around it. In fact, the sensory information that our minds receive undergoes a significant degree of processing before it resembles the world as we know it.
Take sight, for example. The sensory information for sight consists of light particles that travel in waves. Once those light waves reach our eyes, the information contained in the waves is transformed into electrical signals carried by the nervous system, a process called transduction.
All sensory information is transduced into electrical signals - the language of the brain. For this reason, the process of sensation can be defined as the act of receiving physical information from the environment and the initial transformation of that information into the nervous system.
Once sensory information is transduced into the electrical signals of the nervous system, the perceptual system works to interpret the sensory information. Perception is the process of identifying and understanding sensory information.
For example, have you ever heard an odd buzzing sound only to realize a few seconds later that it is the hum of a bee? Or, maybe you thought you saw a mountain lion making its way down the hillside but on a closer look realized it was only the neighbor's cat? That is your perceptual system making sense of the sensory information it is receiving.
Most of the time, it works lightning fast; however, because the sensory information we take in is in such an elementary form, our perceptual systems have to do a lot of translating work, and every once in a while, we experience a sort of perceptual hiccup.
There is a lot of information in the world around us - so much that we could never process it all. Fortunately, another one of our basic psychological processes, attention, acts as a filter and only allows information it deems as relevant to pass through for processing. Attention can be defined as the selection and focusing of what the mind processes.
Have you ever been at a party or an otherwise crowded location and, despite the fact that you are not listening to the many conversations going on around you, your ears perk up when your name is spoken? This phenomenon has been termed the cocktail party effect, and it helps us to see how our attention system works. Normally, in a crowded location you don't need to pay attention to all of the conversations going on around you. In fact, if you did, you would have a very difficult time staying focused on your own conversation with another person. But, because your name is such a personally important piece of information, your attention is automatically triggered when it is spoken.
There are many reasons why paying attention to certain information might be worthwhile. For example, being able to see and identify a stop sign is pretty handy when trying to drive. However, once you've continued driving and left that stop sign behind you, there is no sense in your mind hanging on to that information. On other occasions, such as when you have nearly missed hitting a deer that suddenly jumped in front of you along a stretch of forested road, you may very well want to remember your deer encounter so that you can keep an eye out for other deer along that same stretch of road in the future.
Learning is the act of acquiring new information in a way that causes a change in future behavior or existing knowledge. But, learning can only happen if you are able to save that new information.
This is where memory comes in. Memory is the holding, storage, and retrieval of information that has been learned. Thanks to memory, you can rest assured that what you learned from the 30-page psychology chapter you just read will not be lost as you move your attention to your friend who just walked in and wants to chat you up about the band he saw last night. When it comes time for your psychology exam, memory will allow you to retrieve all of that hard work.
Let's review. Psychological processing isn't limited to sensation, perception, attention, learning, and memory, and these five processes don't necessarily need to occur in a particular order. However, it is by breaking down the mind and its behavior into basic psychological processes and understanding how these underlying processes work together that psychologists are able to make sense of how our engines run.
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