What Is the Spreading Activation in Cognitive Psychology?


Diego Sanchez

Spreading Activation in Cognitive Psychology:
Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that studies mental processes, including the way we think, perceive, remember, and learn. One of the central concepts in cognitive psychology is spreading activation. It refers to the way information is processed and retrieved in our minds when we encounter a stimulus.

What Is Spreading Activation?

Spreading activation is a theory that suggests that when we encounter a piece of information or a stimulus, it triggers a chain reaction of related concepts and associations in our minds. For example, if you hear the word “dog,” your mind will likely activate related concepts such as “pet,” “bark,” “fur,” “loyal,” etc.

How Does Spreading Activation Work?

The process of spreading activation works through an associative network of concepts stored in our long-term memory. Each concept is connected to other related concepts by links or pathways, creating a network of interconnected nodes. When one node is activated (e.g., by seeing or hearing a word), it activates the connected nodes, which then activate their connected nodes and so on.

Examples of Spreading Activation

Here’s an example to illustrate how spreading activation works. Suppose you see the word “apple.”

This might activate related concepts such as “fruit,” “red,” “juicy,” and so on. If you see the word “doctor,” this might activate related concepts such as “medicine,” “hospital,” “nurse,” etc.

  • Apple -> Fruit -> Red -> Strawberry
  • Doctor -> Medicine -> Hospital -> Nurse

In both cases, each concept activates related concepts based on their strength of association. For example, if your personal experience with apples has been positive (e., you enjoy eating apples), your mind might activate positive associations, such as “delicious,” “healthy,” etc. However, if you’ve had a negative experience with apples (e., you got sick after eating one), your mind might activate negative associations, such as “gross,” “nauseous,” etc.

Applications of Spreading Activation

Spreading activation has many practical applications in cognitive psychology and related fields. For example, it can be used to study language processing, memory retrieval, and problem-solving. It can also be used in artificial intelligence and computer science to simulate human-like processing of information.


Spreading activation is a fundamental concept in cognitive psychology that explains how our minds process and retrieve information. By understanding the associative network of concepts in our long-term memory and how they are interconnected, researchers can gain insights into various aspects of human cognition. With the help of advanced technologies and computational models, spreading activation theory continues to be an active area of research today.