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Cognition: definition, main processes and functioning

Cognition: definition, main processes and functioning

March 25, 2023

Cognition allows us to perceive our environment, learn from it and remember the information we have obtained , as well as solve problems that arise during life or communicate with other people.

In this article we will describe what exactly cognition is and what are the main cognitive processes.

What is cognition?

The term "cognition" can be defined as the capacity of some living beings to obtain information about their environment and, from its processing by the brain, to interpret it and give it a meaning. In this sense, cognitive processes depend as much on the sensory capacities as on the central nervous system.

It is a concept of very broad meaning that can be roughly equated with that of "thought" . However, as we will see later, this term can also refer to one of the processes or phases that make up cognition: reasoning, which overlaps in turn with the resolution of problems.

In the field of psychology, cognition is understood as the processing of any type of information through mental functions. From a historical point of view this conceptualization is derived from the traditional separation between the rational and the affective; However, today emotion is often seen as a cognitive process.

Throughout history many authors have proposed that cognition, particularly that which takes place consciously, should be the main object of study in scientific psychology. Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus or William James began to study basic cognitive processes such as memory or attention at the end of the 19th century.

Current developments in the study of cognition owe much to the theories of information processing and cognitive orientation in general, very popular from the mid-twentieth century. These paradigms favored the consolidation of interdisciplinary fields as relevant as neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Main cognitive processes

The faculties that make up cognition are multiple; we will stop only in some of the most general and relevant , such as attention, language and metacognition (or knowledge about one's cognition).

Likewise, and taking into account current knowledge, we will include emotion as a cognitive process in its entirety.

1. Perception

The term "perception" refers to the uptake of stimuli from the environment by the sensory organs and its transmission to higher levels of the nervous system, but also to the cognitive process by which we generate a mental representation of this information and interpret it. In this second phase, prior knowledge and attention intervene.

2. Attention

Attention is the general ability to focus cognitive resources on stimuli or specific mental contents; therefore, it has a regulatory role in the functioning of other cognitive processes. This ability is divided into several facets, so that attention can be understood as selection, concentration, activation, monitoring or expectations.

3. Learning and memory

Learning is defined as the acquisition of new information or the modification of existing mental contents (together with their corresponding neurophysiological correlates). Different types of learning have been described, such as classical and operant conditioning models, which are associated with mechanisms of synaptic potentiation.

Memory is a concept intimately related to learning , since it encompasses the coding, storage and retrieval of information. In these processes key structures of the limbic system such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, the fornix, the nucleus accumbens or the mammillary bodies of the thalamus are involved.

4. Language

Language is the faculty that allows human beings to use complex methods of communication , both orally and in writing. From an evolutionary point of view it is considered a development of nonspecific vocalizations and gestures that were used by our ancestors and that resemble those used by other animal species.

5. Emotion

Although emotion has traditionally been separated from cognition (understood as equivalent to thought), the increase of knowledge in psychology has revealed that the two processes work in a similar way . The level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the motivation to approach or move away from a stimulus are determinants in emotion.

  • Recommended article: "The 8 types of emotions (and their characteristics)"

6. Reasoning and problem solving

Reasoning is a high level cognitive process that is based on the use of more basic ones to solve problems or achieve objectives around complex aspects of reality. There are different types of reasoning depending on how we classify them; if we do it from logical criteria we have deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning.

7. Social cognition

The popularization of social psychology, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, led to an increase in interest in the study of cognition applied to interpersonal relationships. From this perspective, transcendental models have been developed, such as attribution theories and schema theory about the representation of knowledge.

8. Metacognition

Metacognition is the faculty that allows us to be aware of our own cognitive processes and reflect on them. Particular attention has been paid to metamemory, since the use of strategies to enhance learning and memory is very useful to improve cognitive performance.

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You - Crash Course Psychology #15 (March 2023).

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