Understanding How the Brain Processes Information

The evolution of learning is enigmatic.  For example, the powers that be provide students with seemingly straightforward discussion questions.  Utilizing procedural knowledge, specifically “knowledge of how to perform cognitive activities” (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 79) acquired from many years of formal educational training, course materials are read, reflected upon and responses are composed. But, here is the rub.  The context and prior knowledge both transform the understanding and resultant meaning and/or responses to the questions.  “Meaningfulness is important because meaningful information can be easily associated with preexisting information in memory (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 77).  This is where the discussion portion becomes so important because each individual constructs their own “meaning” and “understanding” of the materials according to their own prior knowledge.

This learning concept became clear to me as I read the material for this week’s discussion.  The information read this week was not completely new to me as a learner, student or educator. My B.A. is in Psychology, and I am credentialed in Health Science and Biology. I have background in the physiological makeup and functioning of the brain in addition to knowledge of information processing theory.  Additionally, I have both personal experience with ADHD (myself and my son), as well as professional (students with ADHD).  However, forearmed with prior knowledge acquired through my formal and information education to date, in addition to the discussion topic, completely changed my perspective, understanding and integration of the material. I found my experience very much in line with Bransford and Johnson’s illustration of the role of meaningfulness first providing a passage to be read without context.  The passage made little sense.  However, once the reader was told the passage was about laundry, the paragraph made complete sense (as cited in Ormond et al., 2009, p. 77).

For instance, academically I have been very successful; however, that is primarily due to successful learning strategies and adaptations developed in my youth in response to negative environmental constraints.  A better example would be in my personal life that more accurately reflects difficulties associated with ADHD.  For instance, I have few family, school or event memories. I remember only two teachers’ names.  I remember one street name.  I remember only two or three childhood friends’ names.  More dramatically, I was married prior to my current marriage.  I literally do not have any recollection of the wedding, other than the location.  I do not remember who attended, the music, the vows, or the reception.  This is in fact a very disturbing idea to “lose memories” to such an extent. Fortunately, with medication, I have been able to overcome many of these issues and retain episodic memories from the last several years.

The course materials gave me a beginning understanding of why I had experienced such dramatic losses in memory.  Fortunately for me, attention and learning is an important biological imperative and therefore spread out amongst several parts of the forebrain, almost as if the brain is creating backup systems in case of power failure in one area (akin to the computer metaphor of Information Processing theory).  Within the forebrain the four separate lobes: frontal, parietal, occipital and parietal each operate in a significant capacity in attention and learning.

Most significant and relevant to ADHD symptomology, learning issues, and behavior issues would be related to: (1) frontal lobe (attention, decision making, planning, self regulation, learning strategies, consciously controlled movements, interpretation of others’ behaviors and inhibition of irrelevant and inappropriate thoughts; (2) parietal lobes which is involved with paying attention, processing word sounds, and spatial interpretation; (3) occipital lobes responsible for interpreting and remembering visual information; and, (4) temporal lobes directly responsible for interpreting and remembering complex auditory information and also for long-term memory retention (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009).

At this point there appears to be a causal link between ADHD and some deficiency within the forebrain and its supportive structures.  Further, the Cognitive Information Processing Theory also provided some additional clues.  First, it is widely held myth that ADHD means that a person is unable to pay attention.  That is not true. In fact, the reality is the opposite.  In fact, the ADHD person is able to pay attention, but unable to discern which stimuli to attend to appropriately. This makes a great deal of sense from the Information Processing Theory perspective.  There are many parts of the process that could inhibit the appropriate memory from being encoded and/or reliably retrieved at a later date. According to Grabe, “differences in the ability to control attention are associated with student age, hyperactivity, intelligence and learning disabilities” (as cited in Ormond et al., 2009, p. 57).  Further, hyperactive students “have difficulty focusing and sustaining attention on academic material. They may be unable to block out irrelevant stimuli effectively, which overloads their processing system.  The primary task may be lost among competing stimuli” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 57).  These issues become of paramount importance due to the limitations inherent to Short-Term (Working) Memory.  Specifically, “WM is limited in duration.   If not acted upon quickly, information in WM decays” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 67).  Additionally, Miller suggests that working memory is also “limited in capacity:… 7+ or -2 items, where items are such meaningful units as words, letters, numbers or common expressions” (as cited in Ormond et al., 2009, p. 67).

In an effort to ascertain the plausibility of my conclusions, I researched the Walden database and found several research theories evidencing similar conclusions.  A review of the literature indicates an etiology consisting of “a strong familial genetic contribution and an association with genetic variations in the dopamine D4 receptor and the dopamine transporter” (Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 691).  There are also “several general theories of ADHD that have been proposed to account for its etiology, symptoms, and possible mechanisms” (Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 692).  Sergeant has developed a Cognitive-Energetic model, Sonuga-Barke the Dual Pathway model, Sagvolden, Johansen, Aase and Russell a Dynamic Developmental Theory all of which include a component of reinforcement dysfunction (a requirement for learning) (as cited in Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 692).

According to these theories, dopamine cell firing occurs in a timely fashion to reinforce learning behaviors.  “Established reinforcers, such as praise or attention, initially evoke dopamine cell firing. As the behaviors that lead to such reinforcers become learnt, reinforcement can be obtained more reliably. As learning proceeds, dopamine cells fire in anticipation of reinforcement, that is, in response to cues that predict the delivery of reinforcement” (Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 693).  However, in student with ADHD, there is a delay or dysfunction in the dopamine transfer resulting in a lack of biological reinforcement to the “learning.”  “Under such conditions, children with ADHD would experience a delayed dopamine signal, rather than the immediate anticipatory dopamine signal that normal children experience. Under these conditions learning would be slower, and may even fail to occur” (Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 695).  Perhaps, more seriously, “the delay in the dopamine signal would also have other consequences.  For example, in children with ADHD, if the target behavior is not externally reinforced immediately then, unlike normal children, there is no anticipatory dopamine signal. This results in failure to reinforce the target behavior, and creates an opportunity for competing behaviors to occur, which may be reinforced by other events. This may lead to children with ADHD engaging in off-task behaviors that do results in immediate reinforcement” (Tripp & Wickens, 2008, p. 695).

There is yet another article relevant to this discussion, which is Barkley’s Unified Theory of Behavioral Inhibition, Sustained Attention, and Executive Function in which Barkley proposes “the impaired ability to internally regulate behavior stemmed from deficiencies in internal organization and planning processes due to a lack of inhibitory control. The EF (executive functions) involved in these processes were ‘nonverbal working memory, verbal working memory (internalized speech), the self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal, and reconstitution. In terms of nonverbal working memory, individuals with ADHD are unable to store and process information as effectively as other individuals when presented with competing stimuli.  In effect, the impaired EF disrupt the processing of information in working memory, which is a significant factor in goal-directed behavior and later affects an individual’s socialization and academic skills” (as cited in Barry & Kelly, 2006, p. 241).

Clearly, as an instructional designer it is imperative to be aware of any and all learning disabilities our students may have.  Prior to this research, I had numerous learning adaptations and accommodations in my “teaching toolbox”; however, in light of the research I have new insight and further questions as to whether or not these strategies would be effective.  The course material covered this week provided a good foundation with which to begin further research. To be a truly effective and intuitive instructional designer, it will be up to me to take this knowledge further and ensure I have an in-depth understanding of each individual learners’ instructional needs. As I have learned in this situation, there is clearly more than meets the eye (and this is from someone who has lived with ADHD for 40+ years).



Barry, L. M., & Kelly, M. A. (2006). Rule-Governed Behavior and Self-Control in Children with ADHD: A Theoretical Interpretation. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 3(3), 239. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=10&hid=9&sid=fb9284c8-773c-48bc-b415-b125038136eb%40sessionmgr10

Ormond, J. E., Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2009). Cognitive Information Processing Theory. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate Custom Edition) (pp. 48-97). New York: Pearson.

Ormond, J. E., Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and the Brain. In Learning Theories and Instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 27-47). New York: Pearson.

Tripp, G., & Wickens, J. (2008). Research Review: Dopamine transfer deficit: a neurobiological theory of altered reinforcement mechanisms in ADHD. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(7), 691-704. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01851.x


One thought on “Understanding How the Brain Processes Information

  1. I completed my dissertation partially on students with learning disabilities in special education programs. As educators, we must continue to address the learning needs of students with learning disabilities. Understanding cognitive thinking processes of students assist us in gathering information to better assist our students ((Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009). I attempt to cater to the learning needs of students in order to properly educate the students I teach.

    Ormond, J. E., Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and the Brain. In Learning Theories and Instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 27-47). New York: Pearson.

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