Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beyond Physical Milestones, Part III: Information Processing

The information processing theory explains how the brain processes, stores, and retains information; often comparing the human brain to a computer.  While the theory can be used to study all forms of infant development, for this explanation, the information that will be processed and later retrieved by the brain describes motor control. 
Information or knowledge is first experienced by curious newborns through their senses.  Their growing brains then take this sensory data (how the carpet feels, how far away the toy is, the temperature of mom’s milk, etc.) and store it in their working (or short-term) memory- a temporary storage system (very temporary- usually less than 20 seconds even in adults!) in the brain with very limited capacity.  Some of this information will eventually make it to the babies’ long-term memory which seems to be limitless in its capacity. 
But, here is one of the first differences between young children and adults.  Young children operate as “novices” while adults operate as “experts” (some more than others, however) when it comes to information processing. Novices do not have the skills (namely, attention spans and encoding or storing knowledge for long-term memory) necessary to make the best use of their brain’s operating systems.  Babies have a very short attention span and little control over their attention.  They are often stuck taking in a new sensation and are unable to disengage while their brain processes what is going on; in contrast, they can also be overstimulated and look away from sensations, preventing knowledge from reaching their long-term memory. 
Along these same lines, it can be difficult for infants to build up their knowledge within their long-term memories.  Once knowledge is stored, it must be organized, so it can later be easily retrieved- just like records you keep in your home or office. In the human brain, these records are known as schemas. This process takes practice (even adults complete exercises to improve their memories), but research shows that infants do start to categorize their memories.  By the time they turn one, babies organize knowledge by its function or behavior type. 
Infants, then, develop schemas for muscle control.  According to the closed-loop model, programmed movements are stored as a result of past experiences. Based upon the sensory inputs, the brain will execute certain movements. 

Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson.
Piek, J. (2006). Infant motor development, volume 10. USA: Sheridan Books.

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