What Is Parallel Processing Psychology And Why Is It Important?

Updated June 18, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team
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How the brain sees the world around us and interprets it to serve you is fascinating, to say the very least. Without our complex brains, we would perceive many objects differently. In this post, we will talk about parallel processing, a phenomenon that most humans engage in every day. After explaining how parallel processing works in the mind, we will elaborate on its applications, benefits, and limitations within the realm of psychology.

How does parallel processing work?

Put simply, parallel processing details how your brain can process different types of information simultaneously. In this way, different components of the brain absorb information and make sense of it in a way your brain can understand. 

For example, when you see an object with your eyes, your brain processes many details about the object at once. These include:

  • Color: Your brain may notice an object’s varying shades of color and how it contrasts against its surroundings. Some people have color blindness, which prevents them from seeing colors, but our brains process colors just fine for the most part. Certain combinations of colors can remind us of objects or events. If you see red, white, and blue close together, you may think of the United States of America.
  • Motion: Our brain detects if something is moving, and if so, how fast it is moving. For example, if you see a moving object heading your way, you know that if you get hit by it, it’s going to hurt, so you move out of the way. Motion can draw our eyes to the object, and certain types of motion can make it easier for us to remain focused.
  • Shape: Our brains process an object’s shape, which helps us realize what it represents. You see a box in a much different shape to how you would a shoe, for example. These shapes become familiar, and you can usually recognize an object through its shape alone.
  • Distance/Depth: Depth teaches us the distance between two objects. If something is close to you, it affects how you perceive it than if it was further away.

Parallel processing, therefore, helps us realize all elements of an object and allows us to make a good decision based on that detail. For instance, let’s imagine a baseball hit high up into the air. First, you may see its shape. The familiar round shape will tell you if it’s a ball. Then, you see the colors. The familiar white and red make you realize it’s a baseball and not another ball. The depth of the ball helps you realize it’s close to you and heading your way. The motion makes you realize it’s fast. These elements allow you to conclude how to respond, either by catching the ball (or avoiding it). 

How does parallel processing apply in psychology?

We have generally covered parallel processing in terms of its operational definition. Now, let’s look at how it’s applied in psychology. In AP Psychology, parallel processing is a replication of a counseling session when under supervision. Essentially, the counselor will bring a pattern of interaction occurring between themselves and the client into view and re-engage in the same pattern with a counseling trainee who acts as a mock client. Next, the therapist-in-training takes that pattern into a role-play counseling session with the therapist acting as the supervisor.

In these scenarios, parallel processing works through transference. The therapist and counselor-in-training may strive to embody the client’s mental space by mimicking their behaviors and thought patterns. It is possible that the therapist may be experiencing similar challenges to the client, which can further help them to empathize with them.

What is the point of engaging in parallel processing? Doing so can help a therapist who feels like they aren’t making progress with a client. Perhaps both parties are becoming frustrated due to the stagnancy or tension. The goal is for the supervisor to give a new perspective in the form of a reenactment, which helps the counselor find new solutions to serve their client.

The pros and cons of parallel processing in psychology

Getty/Luis Alvarez

As briefly mentioned above, taking part in parallel processing can help improve the relationship – or therapeutic alliance – between a counselor and their client. There are several other advantages to engaging in parallel processing:

  • Accelerates the client-counselor process by helping participants to find a new perspective and get out of repetitive, potentially negative cycles
  • Encourages intermittent reflection throughout an enduring relationship between a counselor and client
  • Reduces stress among mental health counselors who are struggling to make progress with their clients.

With that said, parallel processing can have its disadvantages as well. If overused, it can lead to fatigue. Additionally, therapists-in-training may be prone to defensiveness or nervousness if they are insecure or frustrated within the power dynamic between themselves and their supervisor(s). To make parallel processing as effective as possible, here are a few suggestions:

  • Utilize supervising counselors who are highly experienced and confident in their abilities. 
  • Strive to create a relationship in which both the therapist-in-training and supervisor feel heard, respected, and valued.
  • Be clear, when acting as a supervisor, as to why parallel processing is being employed. Ideally, use a framework to progress throughout the training.
  • Give constructive, specific feedback (as a supervisor) and pause throughout the process to allow time for reflection.
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Seeking online therapy for mental health support

No matter what you are going through, it is worth speaking to a therapist if you’re having difficulty overcoming problems. By reaching out to online counseling platforms like MyTherapist, you can connect with myriad professional mental health counselors who are licensed, experienced in your area of need, and likely familiar with acting as a supervisor in parallel processing. 

One of the most popular forms of talk therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has demonstrated effectiveness in helping people overcome symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use, for example. CBT treatment entails making an intentional effort to change negative thought patterns by strategies like facing fears, role-playing interactions, and engaging in mindfulness practices. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

In this way, participants learn to replace defense mechanisms (like avoidance, perfectionism, or confrontation) with healthy coping skills. As a client, you may even engage in the same parallel processing techniques therapists use when they are role-playing challenging therapy-related situations. 

Studies continue to affirm the efficacy of online CBT as it pertains to improving symptoms of prevalent mental health disorders. In a meta-analysis of nine controlled trials which utilized online CBT to treat 840 participants, researchers concluded that the treatment was a viable alternative to in-person therapy.

Not only is online CBT effective, but many people also find it highly convenient. Participants can set appointments at times that work for their schedule and attend virtual counseling sessions from a preferred location (like home or work). This flexibility in itself may reduce some of the stress associated with having to set aside other priorities in order to attend face-to-face therapy. Additionally, online therapy is typically viewed as a more affordable alternative to in-person counseling.


Simply understanding the mechanisms behind parallel processing can help you – as a participant – get the most out of your online therapy sessions. By understanding that your therapist is here to support you and help you reach your goals, you may be more willing to accept constructive feedback or open your mind to trying new ways of thinking or acting. If you happen to be a counselor yourself, collaborating with a fellow professional to improve your own practice via parallel processing can help you form a better rapport with clients. Regardless of your role, you can connect with the licensed professionals at MyTherapist to help you reach your mental health goals.

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