The Basics of Cognition and Mental Processes

Girl examining cognition
RubberBall Productions / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

Cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. These processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning.

A Brief History of the Study of Cognition

The study of how we think dates back to the time of the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato's approach to the study of the mind suggested that people understand the world by first identifying basic principles buried deep inside themselves and then using rational thought to create knowledge. This viewpoint was later advocated by philosophers such as Rene Descartes and linguist Noam Chomsky. This approach to cognition is often referred to as rationalism.

Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that people acquire their knowledge through their observations of the world around them. Later thinkers including John Locke and B.F. Skinner also advocated this point of view, which is often referred to as empiricism.

During the earliest days of psychology and for the first half of the twentieth century, psychology was largely dominated by psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism. Eventually, a formal field of study devoted solely to the study of cognition emerged as part of the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s. The field of psychology concerned with the study of cognition is known as cognitive psychology.

One of the earliest definitions of cognition was presented in the first textbook on cognitive psychology published in 1967. According to Neisser, cognition is "those processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used."

To get a better idea of exactly what cognition is and what cognitive psychologists study, let’s take a closer look at Neisser’s original definition.

Transforming Sensory Input

As you take in sensations from the world around you, the information that you see, hear, taste, tough, and smell must first be transformed into signals that your brain can understand. The perceptual process allows you to take in sensory information and convert it into a signal that your brain can understand and act upon. For example, if you see an object flying through the air toward you, the information is taken in by your eyes and transferred as a neural signal to your brain. Your brain then sends out signals to your muscle groups so that you are able to respond and duck out of the way before the object smacks you in the head.

Reducing Sensory Information

The world is full of an endless amount of sensory experiences. To make meaning out of all this incoming information, it is important for your brain to be able to reduce your experience of the world down to the fundamentals. You cannot attend to or remember every single sentence of the psychology lecture you attend each week. Instead, the experience of the event is reduced down to the critical concepts and ideas that you need to remember to succeed in your class. Instead of remembering every detail about what the professor wore each day, where you sat during each class session and how many students were in the class, you focus your attention and memory on the key ideas presented during each lecture.

Elaborating Information

In addition to reducing information to make it more memorable and understandable, people also elaborate on these memories as they reconstruct them. Imagine that you are telling a friend about a funny event that happened last week. As you weave your tale, you might actually start adding in details that were not part of the original memory. This might also happen as you are trying to recall items on your shopping list. You may find that you add a number of items that seem like they belong on your list due to their similarity with other items you wanted to buy. In some cases, this elaboration happens when people are struggling to remember something. When the information cannot be recalled, the brain sometimes fills in the missing data with whatever seems to fit.

Storing and Recovering Information

Memory is a major topic of interest in the field of cognitive psychology. How we remember, what we remember and what we forget reveal a great deal about how the cognitive processes operate. While people often think of memory as being much like a video camera, carefully recording and cataloging life events and storing them away for later recall, research has found that memory is much more complex.

Short-term memory is surprisingly brief, typically lasting just 20 to 30 seconds. Long-term memory can be surprisingly stable and enduring, on the other hand, with memories lasting years and even decades. Memory can also be surprisingly fragile and fallible. Sometimes we forget, and other times we are subject to misinformation effects that can even lead to the formation of false memories.

Using Information

Cognition involves not only the things that go on inside our heads but also how these thoughts and mental processes influence our actions. Our attention to the world around us, memories of past events, understanding of language, judgments about how the world works, and abilities to solve problems all contribute to how we behave and interact with our surrounding environment.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Cognition. American Psychological Association. 2018.

  2. Marton, Ference, and Shirley Booth. Learning and awareness. Routledge, 2013. doi:10.4324/9780203053690

  3. Sgarbi, Marco. The Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism: Logic and Epistemology in the British Isles (1570–1689). Vol. 32. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

  4. Lachman, Roy, Janet L. Lachman, and Earl C. Butterfield. Cognitive psychology and information processing: An introduction. Psychology Press, 2015.

  5. Neisser, Ulric. Cognitive psychology: Classic edition. Psychology Press, 2014.

  6. Mather G. Foundations of sensation and perception. Psychology Press. 2016.

  7. Sousa, David A. How the brain learns. Corwin Press, 2016.

  8. Lacy, J. W., & Stark, C. (2013). The neuroscience of memory: implications for the courtroomNature reviews. Neuroscience14(9), 649–658. doi:10.1038/nrn3563

  9. Verma, Gajendra K., and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman, eds. Approaches to Educational and Social Inclusion: International perspectives on theory, policy and key challenges. Taylor & Francis, 2016.

  10. Alberini CM. The role of reconsolidation and the dynamic process of long-term memory formation and storage. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience. 2011 Mar 7;5:12. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2011.00012

  11. Straube B. An overview of the neuro-cognitive processes involved in the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of true and false memories. Behavioral and Brain Functions. 2012 Dec 1;8(1):35. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-8-35

  12. Schwarzer R. Self-efficacy: Thought control of action. Taylor & Francis. 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Revlin R. Cognition: Theory and practice. Macmillan. 2012.