What Is Cognition?

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What Is Cognition?

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

Cognitive psychology is the field of psychology that investigates how people think and the processes involved in cognition. 

Types of Cognitive Processes

There are many different types of cognitive processes. These include:

  • Attention: Attention is a cognitive process that allows people to focus on a specific stimulus in the environment.
  • Language: Language and language development are cognitive processes that involve the ability to understand and express thoughts through spoken and written words. It allows us to communicate with others and plays an important role in thought.
  • Learning: Learning requires cognitive processes involved in taking in new things, synthesizing information, and integrating it with prior knowledge.
  • Memory: Memory is an important cognitive process that allows people to encode, store, and retrieve information. It is a critical component in the learning process and allows people to retain knowledge about the world and their personal histories.
  • Perception: Perception is a cognitive process that allows people to take in information through their senses (sensation) and then utilize this information to respond and interact with the world.
  • Thought: Thought is an essential part of every cognitive process. It allows people to engage in decision-making, problem-solving, and higher reasoning.

Uses

Cognitive processes affect every aspect of life, from school to work to relationships. Some specific uses for these cognitive processes include the following.

Learning New Things

Learning requires being able to take in new information, form new memories, and make connections with other things that you already know. Researchers and educators use their knowledge of these cognitive processes to help create instructive materials to help people learn new concepts.

Forming Memories

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.

Making Decisions

Whenever people make any type of decision, it involves making judgments about things they have processed. It might involve comparing new information to prior knowledge, integrating new information into existing ideas, or even replacing old knowledge with new knowledge before making a choice.

Impact of Cognition

The cognitive processes have a wide-ranging impact that influences everything from daily life to overall health.

Perceiving the World

As you take in sensations from the world around you, the information that you see, hear, taste, touch, 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.

Forming Impressions

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 remember everything, so events are reduced down to the critical concepts and ideas that you need.

Filling in the Gaps

In addition to reducing information to make it more memorable and understandable, people also elaborate on these memories as they reconstruct them. 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.

Interacting With the World

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.

Tips

Cognitive processes are influenced by a range of factors including genetics and experiences. While you cannot change your genetics, there are things that you can do to protect and maximize your cognitive abilities:

  • Stay healthy. Lifestyle factors such as eating healthy and getting regular exercise can have an effect on your cognitive functioning. 
  • Think critically. Question your assumptions and ask questions about your thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions.
  • Stay curious and keep learning. One great way to flex your cognitive abilities is to keep challenging yourself to learn more about the world.
  • Skip multitasking. While it might seem like doing several things at once would help you get done faster, research has shown it actually decreases both productivity and work quality.

Potential Pitfalls

It is important to remember that these cognitive processes are complex and often imperfect. Some of the possible pitfalls that can affect cognition include:

  • Problems with attention: Selective attention is a limited resource, so there are a number of things that can make it difficult to focus on everything in your environment. Attentional blink, for example, happens when you are so focused on one thing that you completely miss something else happening right in front of you.
  • Memory problems and limitations: 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.
  • Cognitive biases: Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking related to how people process and interpret information about the world. The confirmation bias is one common example that involves only paying attention to information that aligns with your existing beliefs while ignoring evidence that doesn't support your views. 

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.

Philosophical Origins

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.

Early Psychology

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.

The Emergence of 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."

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