Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Recursive Decomposition

Recursive decomposition (Palmer & Kimchi, 1986) refers to the process whereby any complex informational event at one level of description can be specified more fully at a lower (and simpler) level of description by decomposing the event into:

  • a number of components and
  • processes that specifiy the relations among these components

The information processing model of memory provides a good example of recursive decomposition.

Above Figure -- Model of Memory

The research strategy called functional analysis (Cummins, 1983) relies on the principle of recursive decomposition.

Recursive decomposition should not be equated with reductionism, which is based on the assumption that the best of correct level of description is the most specific one (e.g., at the level of physics).


  1. Cummins, R. (1983). The Nature Of Psychological Explanation. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
  2. Palmer, S. & Kimchi, R. (1986). The information approach to cognition. In T. Knapp, & L. Robertson (Eds.), Approaches to cognition. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.

(Revised November 2010)