How our Brains get fed! Multimodal overview with consideration for information processing.

When creating course content, it is important to consider how the brain takes in information.  Understanding how information is processed when presented to the brain helps us to create effective learning events.

We receive external information through sight, sound, or touch.  This information is received and held in sensory registers (Ormrod, Schunk & Gredler, pg. 49. 2009. Orey, 2001) in its original sensory form until pattern recognition occurs.  A sensory register is basically your super-short-term-memory, the information stays here for a very short period of time.  It is up to our brain’s pattern recognition ability to assign meaning to the input; this happens in the blink of an eye – or rather a fraction of a second (Ormrod, Schunk & Gredler, pg. 49, 2009.)

Imagine, if you will, that you are in a flight simulator.  This simulator has consoles matching a specific airframe, windows showing a simulated environment, and indicators providing telemetry information (visual sensory register).  The simulator also has a radio to communicate with a simulated tower and buzzers set to respond to events that happen during a simulation (auditory sensory register).  Finally, this simulator allows you to interact with the controls, switches, knobs, and buttons during a simulation (tactile sensory register).  All of these inputs are there to enhance simulated learning events and in turn will aid in learner retention by way of a multimodal simulation (van Erp, & Werkhoven, 2003).

What is multimodal simulation?  More than simply taking various input and arranging and evaluating each input in isolation – van Erp and Werkhoven’s Multimodal Perception and Simulation posits that “our brains merge the information derived from the various sensory systems into a coherent and unambiguous multisensory percept of the world.”  Van Erp and Werkhoven describe four benefits of multimodal human-computer interaction:

  • First, multimodal interfaces yield more robust performance.
  • Second, multimodal interfaces can reduce mental load.
  • Third, multimodal HCI has the potential to greatly expand the accessibility of virtual worlds to a larger diversity of users by adequately selecting the most appropriate combinations of modalities with respect to age, skill, style, impairments, and language
  • Fourth, multimodal presentation can promote new forms of HCI that were not previously available.



Dr. Margaret Sermund-Clikeman discusses the influence of brain maturation with regards to learning readiness in The Importance of matching instruction to a child’s maturity level, but Dr. Sermund-Clikeman also delves into where learning occurs.  It is important to understand how readiness to learn and where learning occurs impacts multimodal processing.

Once information has been received through a sensory register it’s up to the brain to make sense of the information and assign meaning to it.  From around age 12 to the 20s the frontal white matter of our brains are refining and develop their structure and function – this part of the brain is imperative for higher cognitive functions. During this time experience contributes to further development, the more varied the experiences the more development occurs.  This part of the brain is largely responsible for how meaning is applied to information and sorts out how to deal with it.

In designing lessons and course content an understanding of how the brain receives and processes information with consideration for age and experience gives us insight into how content can be structured for the best information retention.  For example, a growing mind, still ascribing value to input may view some information differently than a fully developed mind.  An awareness of how information moves from sensory registers to the frontal lobe helps Instructional Designers create more effective learning events.



Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York, NY: Pearson.

Orey, M. (2001). Information processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology Retrieved from

Semrud-Clikeman, M. (n.d) Research in Brain Function and Learning. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

van Erp, J., Werkhoven, P.  (2003). Multimodal Perception and Simulation Human information processing: Vision, memory, and attention. American Psychological Association, 227-242.

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