How can two people look at the same “facts” and come up with wildly different conclusions? Why are some clients unable to understand the problem as you do? Why are some people afraid of some dangerous things and not others? One answer is, people process information with different combinations of neural systems, and assign different meaning to pieces of information, particularly in the context of predicting or managing danger.
Since most, if not all, conflict (and litigation) represents danger, understanding how people process information about danger is a particularly useful skill for lawyers, legal professionals, therapists and others working in situations where relationship danger is present.
Fundamentally, information processing is about the defensive exclusion of dangerous information.
When some topic, or some piece of information, presents a contradiction to what someone psychologically needs or expects, human minds frequently resolve the contradiction by distorting, eliminating, or replacing the dangerous information. As John Bowlby said, they defensively exclude unwanted information. The significance, for when we need to understand how someone is looking at a situation or problem, is that we need to understand what information they are not considering. This is a complex topic and described below.
Of course, once we recognize how they are excluding or over-relying on limited types of information, then we need enhanced relationship and communication skills to see if we can help the other person accept a less distorted view of the dangerous information.
Cognitive psychology theorists and scientists describe information processing, usually from the perspective of cognitive brain function. They tend to focus on how information from the environment, outside the body, is processed in neural networks. Attachment theorists and scientists also describe information processing, but they include additional sources of information such as emotions and body states. They also include information emanating from relationships: parent-child, child-child, and adult-adult.
Information processing became a key concept for attachment pioneer John Bowlby and his view of attachment theory. Patricia Crittenden developed Bowlby’s ideas as she developed the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM). Information processing is a foundational element of the DMM. This article describes the DMM view, which is a useful perspective for lawyers and professionals attending to interpersonal conflict because the DMM focuses on human functioning in the context of conflict and danger.
This CSI overview paper will look at some key concepts useful for understanding information processing, look at the primary two or three sources of information, then describe a simple 4-step information processing model, look at how information can be transformed (distorted, excluded, etc.), briefly look at how attention and memory are relevant to information processing, and offer a few comments about how information processing developed in attachment theory and the DMM.
Six Key concepts for understanding information processing
- Everything is a piece of information.
- Information is transformed from what it is in fact to a representation inside our own neural systems.
- There are discrete sources of information, each of which can be preferred or minimized (biased toward or against) as information is stored and recalled from memory.
- There are many neural networks in a body to process information, and many focus specifically on predicting and responding to danger-related information.
- Danger comes in many forms, and relationship danger can be quite important for humans.
- Increased danger tends to narrow, or limit access, to neural processing networks and response methods (danger can increase information processing bias).
Key concept #1: Everything is information
We can think of everything in the world as a piece of information. A plant might be food, but before that it is information about something edible, healthy, dangerous, or poisonous. A dog, a law suit, conflict, an angry face, an expressionless face, loneliness, and rejection are all examples of things that exist in the world, and also present information which could indicate physical and/or psychological danger.
Key concept #2: Information is necessarily transformed
To process a piece of information, we need to first convert that information into electro-chemical information inside our own neural networks. This may be an odd thought for those new to information processing. If we think about rhubarb pie or broccoli, those things don’t exist in our minds. Rather, what exists are electrical signals and neurochemicals that activate when we think about them. You might convert broccoli in your mind to yummy, nasty, crunchy, mushy, healthy or poisonous (which it is in relatively large quantities). You might focus on a generally positive or negative set of mental representations, or a set of thoughts which integrates and balances all aspects of broccoli.
In the example below, the crying baby exists outside our mind, but once we start thinking about the baby and what the crying might mean, or if we leave the room and think about the baby, what we are working with is a pattern of neuron firings and bodily sensations, not the actual baby. A parent’s ability to relate in a healthy way to their baby depends in part on how they transform and represent the baby inside their mind.
Information can be transformed in many ways, and can easily be transformed in less than accurate ways. The representation of the baby in a parent’s mind may or not be accurate, and may or may not be useful for the baby. The seven ways information can be transformation are detailed below. One simple example for now is the meaning a person gives to why the baby is crying: is the baby hungry, wet, fussy, some other reason, or for no understandable reason? Are any of those meanings accurate without more information?
Key concept #3: Sources of information
Again, this may seem like an odd thought, but humans have surprisingly limited sources of information for their information processing, in terms of what information will help to predict danger. Attachment science has, so far, identified three primary sources of information that are particularly important for predicting danger.
Two primary sources, cognitive and affective, are described below. Another sources is somatic, or body-based information (described below).
Cognitive information is represented in an expected sequence of events occurring over a time period. “If I eat broccoli, it will be good for my body.” “If my baby is crying, then it must hungry (or tired, wet, or fussy)”. Cognitive information relates to the temporal order of events which lead to predictable outcomes, particularly dangerous or safe outcomes. Cognitive information is based on past experiences and can relate primarily to information from outside the body.
Affective information comes from sensory information, which includes emotion and feeling states inside the body. Some types of sensory information have innate meaning (darkness, emptiness, sudden loud noises, certain tastes) and others are acquired by association with dangerous or safe experiences. Intense, unexpected, and rapid perceptual changes can particularly activate affective states which represent danger, such as gunshots, car accidents, angry outbursts, and interpersonal rejection. Mild, rhythmic, and predictable changes can represent safety.
Key concept #4: Some neural networks focus on danger survival
Humans have dozens of discrete neural systems. Some are designed to support activities like movement, math, food gathering, play, reproduction, and creating. Because the world is a dangerous place, we have many systems specifically focused on maximizing survival. Sometimes neural systems work in parallel for complex thinking. Sometimes they function quite singularly, such as when we respond to danger with the fight-flight-freeze response system.
When conflict is actual or potential, danger-processing systems can dominate neural activity. If your spouse tells you they want a divorce, neural networks which support playing music, digesting food, or solving complex problems are not useful in that moment and can become difficult to access. (They might be useful later to calm the nervous system or nourish your body.) Danger-processing systems can activate survival behaviors in the moment, and persistently over long periods of time.
As various danger-processing systems interpret danger, they can work in harmony with each other to optimize survival, work in some disharmony, or work in conflict with each other producing a chaotic mix of responses.
Key concept #5: Dangers are many, and can be relational
Danger for humans comes in many forms. Because humans are extremely social animals, awareness of and protection from relationship danger is critical. Survival may be dependent on maintaining relationships. Infanticide may involve a failed parent-child relationship. Banishment from the tribe, particularly in ancient times, was not conducive to a happy life, longevity, or reproductive opportunities.
Additionally, dangers can be perceived quite differently depending on which source of information is being primarily relied on. “Doing the wrong thing” can be a great danger in the context of cognitive processing, because in childhood a negative response was predictably provided. With if/then cognitive processing, what follows next is well understood. For affective processing, what follows next is quite unknown and unpredictable so it is less important. It’s more important that the feeling in the moment is satisfied.
CSI’s DMM Danger List identifies some dangers identified by attachment science which are subjectively perceived as important from a cognitive and affective perspective. Cognitive and affective-based dangers tend to be quite opposite.
It’s legal to harm children: attachment healing in custody and domestic violence cases is a CSI article which offers a case example of how a professional can utilize danger, information, and memory system usage to expand a client’s ability to protect their children.
Key concept #6: Self-protective strategies narrow in the face of intense danger
Humans have a wide range of strategies, or things they do, to get through difficult situations. However, for most people, as the threat or risk of danger is perceived as becoming greater, the range of self-protective strategies available for use will tend to decrease. This may be in part because danger often requires fast information processing, and people may rely on their primary processing systems, cognitive or affective-oriented, for quick solutions. This is sometimes referred to as information processing short-cuts.
Using limited systems may also feel safer, and function like a default process the mind came to rely on in early childhood.
Six key concepts reviewed
So far, this article has outlined six key concepts to understand about processing information, especially in the context of danger.
- Everything is information
- Information is necessarily transformed
- There are two primary sources of information
- Cognitive information (temporally sequenced)
- Affective (emotional intensity)
- Some neural networks focus on danger prediction and response
- Danger comes in many forms, including relationship dangers
- Self-protective strategies narrow in the face of intense danger
Attachment science measures, particularly DMM-based assessments, have proven exceptional at teasing out cognitive and affective patterns of information processing. In the context of litigation and intense relationship threat, these patterns of information processing can often be anticipated and predictable.
Four-step information processing model
Here is a simple, four step way to think about information processing. When presented with information and a problem, threat or actual danger, people:
- Perceive the information, or not;
- Interpret the information in some way, or not;
- Select response of some sort, or not; and
- Implement behavior of some sort, or not.
Information will generally be processed in order, although sometimes the processing may be fast or slow and the response may be somewhat automatic.
Simple example: a crying baby
- Perceive. Will the parent notice their baby is crying? Is the parent too distracted? Is the parent depressed, or triggered by their own childhood experience, such that their subconscious neural systems are blocking the information from coming into their conscious awareness?
- Interpret. If the information, a crying baby, enters the parent’s awareness, the parent must interpret what the crying might mean. This requires access to memories to judge the current information with past experiences. Is the baby a little hungry, quite hungry, wet, cold, sick or fussy? Will the parent decide the baby is crying outside of the parent’s feeding time schedule, or get annoyed because the baby is interfering with the parent’s needs?
- Select response. If the parent interprets the crying as indicating the child is, for example, hungry, the parent will consider options. The parent may decide food should be promptly provided, even if it interferes with what they are doing. The parent might decide the baby needs to learn to wait, or needs to learn not to interrupt what the parent is doing. The parent might consider feeding the child a few grapes, or provide a full meal even if outside the normal routine.
- Implement. Whatever response the parent may consider, the parent may or may not implement the response options. They might immediately or promptly provide food, or offer some form of soothing or distraction until food can be provided. On the other hand, the parent might get distracted, or look at the child and shake their head and say “No, not now!”, or might react emotionally and quickly, without reflecting, and swat the child.
The outcome of the information processing, or the action or inaction the parent ends up taking, might for the child be nurturing and protective, or neglectful, harmful, or maltreating.
Ignoring the child’s need in this case can lead to an attachment harm. Teaching the child their needs are not important and that their pleas for help will elicit no help from their parent can cause the child to learn to dismiss their own feelings and needs. The cognitive response is: Why try if it will do no good? When parents respond inconsistently, the child can learn that they should just keep crying and even cry louder until the parent does what the child wants. Why stop if their immediate needs will eventually be met? This is an affectively informed response, which is learned when satisfying needs is more important than any negative response from a parent.
Transformation of information
As described above, information taken into our neural systems necessarily requires that we transform the actual thing into neural activities and memories. As we convert what we perceive or experience into neural information, we can transform it in at least seven different ways, with increasing amounts of transformation:
- True (accurate and predictive)
- Erroneous (true and accurate, but not predictive)
Seven types of information transformation
1 TRUE transformations allow for the most accurate predictions about the meaning of the information. In the crying baby example, true transformation allows an accurate understanding of the baby’s needs, and increases the likelihood the information processing system will lead to an appropriate and healthy response by the parent.
2 ERRONEOUS transformations minimally alter the information and might lead the information process to a non-productive outcome, such as providing too much food when the parent is trying to teach an eating routine, or providing a binky (suck-toy) when the baby is actually hungry.
3 DISTORTED information emphasizes a portion of the information and de-emphasizes another portion. “She’s hungry, but she is a strong baby and can wait” indicates the parent correctly perceived the crying, but the interpretation over-emphasizes the fact the baby won’t die of starvation in the next hour. (Repetition of the feeling and dismissive response can teach this child to de-emphasize their feelings.)
4 OMITTED information discards some or all of the information from further processing. Sometimes the positive and negative quality of the information is split and the important part is omitted. “Oh look, he’s so cute when he cries like that, he loves me. Isn’t that great everyone!” This omits the fact the baby is hungry by dismissing the negative part of the baby’s experience and emphasizing the positive part from the parent’s perspective.
5 FALSIFIED information changes accurate information from one thing to distinctly different thing. “The baby is hungry.” If the baby is wet and the diaper hasn’t been changed in a long time, and the caregiver knows or should know this, the caregiver has changed wet into hungry. Another example combining blame and falsification: “Now look what you did, you upset the baby again with your loud talking!”
6 DENIED information usually involves actively avoiding information the person fears might be true. For example, if the parent is doing something they consider important, or perhaps doing something to protect themselves from danger, or embarrassed and defensive because they have failed to tend to their baby, they might deny their child is crying or hungry. “I just fed her, there must not be a real problem.”
7 DELUSIONAL information is information which has been created and is not true. This kind of transformation is surprisingly common, even for healthy and functional people. (Delusional information is not the same as something like “delusional schizophrenic.”) An example here might be “I just ate pizza, the baby won’t want my milk right now.”
In each of the four steps of information processing described above, information can be transformed in any way. Because there are so many possible combinations, the outcome in any given parent-child interaction (using the example above) can vary considerably all day long.
Attention and memory
As noted briefly above, information processing necessarily involves attention and memory. It is hard to perceive what we have not given attention to, or at least allowed into our awareness.
Interpreting current information requires access to memory systems. Information, especially about danger, is generally best understood in terms of our past experiences with danger. However, we can use different memory systems to store and recall past experiences.
Humans have at least seven different memory systems, all of which process different qualities of information. Most people learn in childhood to rely on certain memory systems more than others because they tend to uniquely support different information sources. This preference tends to carry into adulthood. Two memory systems are:
Semantic memory handles the overall meaning of a past experience, but does not include details of the experience. “Broccoli rocks.” “Broccoli sucks.” These statements don’t tell us why, or how the conclusion was reached.
Imaged memory stores an image of how we felt during a past experience. “I love the snap of fresh broccoli.” Images can can focus on a particular emotion, such as the fear of an angry voice, a smell, or a type of touch, but not necessarily other details about the experience. Imaged memory may not include a semantic meaning, just a strong sensation.
Semantic memory tends to support or underlie cognitive information processing because it captures the predictable outcome regardless of personal feelings and needs. “If I get angry then I get punished. I don’t remember why [because it never mattered why], but I better not show my anger now.”
The story of Victoria Climbié offers a good, but tragic, example of how the suppression of extreme negative experiences can lead to extreme outcomes. Victoria was seen as a child who rarely talked about her negative experiences and who instead replaced them the extremely positive behaviors, such learning to make “a smile that lit up the room.” She was seen and interviewed by many doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers, day care providers and clergy about her many bruises, cuts, and burns and medical problems. Professionals failed to accurately process the information about her abuse which was right in front of them, until it was too late.
Imaged memory, sometimes called perceptual memory, tends to support affective information processing, because it captures the intensity of the feeling which is related to the outcome of satisfying the feeling. “I smell breakfast cooking, I must be hungry. In fact, I must be starving!”
|Semantic examples||Imaged examples|
|“If I’m reasonable with them, they should be reasonable me.”|
“I need a restraining order. I can’t give you an example why, I just do.”
“You’re the expert, I trust your decision.”
“They should compromise, and save costs.”
|“He was a terrible husband. He never even bought me a steak dinner!”|
“Every time I smell that cologne, I feel like I’m going to get hit.”
“My partner is the best. Give you the shirt off the back, you know?”
“It doesn’t matter what it costs, it’s the point of the matter!”
|“Musn’t cry.”||“The milk of human kindness.”|
When examining discourse patterns to determine a person’s preference for processing information cognitively or affectively, attachment and other discourse-based sciences rely heavily on which memory systems people tend to rely on. When people tend to prefer or utilize specific groups of memory systems more than other groups of systems, it can have a dramatic impact on their information processing biases. It also impacts their communication styles.
Of course, memory is a complex topic of it own. Some kinds of semantic conclusions support affective processing, and some kinds of imaged memory support cognitive processing. Memory systems are mentioned here because they are an important part of information processing. It is an important part of the DMM, and of CSI’s Conflict Model. Understanding privilege and bias in memory system function provides deep insight into why people behave and think in ways that are sometimes hard for others to understand.
The historical development of patterns of information processing: Bowlby and Crittenden
John Bowlby, one of the primary developers of attachment theory, wrote that information processing was largely conducted below the level of consciousness. In Attachment and Loss, Volume 3, chapter 4 (1980), Bowlby said that all pyschoanalytic defense mechanisms are a function of defensive exclusion of information (P. 64), and that common defenses which mitigate the pain of loss (of attachment figures, whether parents or adult partners) include repression, splitting, denial, dissociation, projection, displacement, identification, and reaction formation (P. 139).
“My thesis is that the traditionally termed defensive processes can all be understood as examples of the defensive exclusion of unwelcome information.”John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, (1980) page 140.
Dr. Patricia Crittenden began her career studying attachment theory from where Bowlby left off, with a focus on processing information and danger. In the article cited below she described the four stage structure of information processing discussed above. It nicely introduces and summarizes the concept of information processing as a practical application. The article helps set the foundation for understanding Crittenden’s ideas on attachment and her development of the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM).
Crittenden, P. M. (1993), An information-processing perspective on the behavior of neglectful parents, 20 Crim. Just. & Behavior 27. Available on ResearchGate here.
Somatic, or body processed, information
Somatic information is considered another type of information. It is given a lot of thought and attention not only by the mental health fields, but also by medical doctors and occupational and physical therapists. Kasia Kozlowska, a medical doctor in Australia, has put a good bit of work into understanding how body states can be ways of knowing and communicating to others about danger. Occupational therapist Éadaoin Bhreathnach incorporates somatic information and DMM principles into her Sensory Attachment Intervention model.
While somatic information could be seen as a subcategory of affective information, Dr. Kozlowska and others distinguish the two. Body discomfort, increased arousal, high muscle tone and pain are some examples of somatic representations of danger. This perspective on processing information about subjectively perceived danger has led Dr. Kozlowska, and many others, to a deeper insight into body-states normally described with terms such as autism and ADHD. See for example Attachment and Family Therapy, Crittenden, Dallos, Landini, & Kozlowska (2014), Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education.
The vagus nerve system, described by Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, describes one powerful somatic information processing system that works at a level mostly below awareness, and faster than the brain’s higher cognitive functions can work. Porges describes how the vagus nerve system functions as a sixth sense which perceives, processes, and transmits information from the body to the brain. The gut brain, which has 100 million neurons lining the intestines, is one such body-brain system.
The intensity of information and danger processed by the vagus nerve system can be light or quite strong. The fight-flight-freeze system is a part of the vagus nerve system, and when activated can lead to intense and automatic danger responses which can dominate information processing. In the 4-part information processing model above, it may be that when people perceive danger with their sixth sense of “body information” the 4-step model described above is bypassed. How somatic systems and the attachment system interact has yet to be fully understood by science.
Information processing summary
Why do people see things differently? For many people, the answer is distortion, omission, denial, or some other process of information transformation.
Learning how information processing works teaches us that listening, acceptance, patience, compassion, understanding, and an ability to tolerate the unknown are essential skills for helping and teaching professionals. If we want to help our clients make their own decisions optimally, relative to their information processing abilities, we can do better by understanding how they are processing information. CSI’s Conflict Model incorporates DMM concepts, including information processing, specifically to help clients optimize their decision making.
If we understand what information they might be over-preferencing, what information they are not considering, then we have the hope of helping them include additional information into their decision making processes.
Mark Baumann, J.D.
Director, Conflict Science Institute
Mark Baumann is the founder and director of The Conflict Science Institute and has developed several of CSI’s integrative models for high conflict professionals, including the Conflict Model. Mark has served as a family law litigator, counselor, mediator, educator, and professional speaker since 1988, and as an ad-hoc board member of the International Association for the Study of Attachment (IASA). In addition to teaching CSI concepts worldwide, Mark continues to develop CSI techniques through the practice of family law, with a focus on attachment, trauma, and domestic violence. (His complete C.V. can be found here)