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Cognitive processes: what exactly are they and why do they matter in Psychology?

Cognitive processes: what exactly are they and why do they matter in Psychology?

July 18, 2024

It is very frequent that when one speaks of some aspect of the psyche, be it from psychology or from other sciences such as medicine, it arises at some point the concept of "cognitive process" .

It is a term widely used and sometimes you do not know what it refers to, and may be confusing. In fact, sometimes difficulties can arise to determine what is or is not a process of these characteristics. That is why in this article we explain what is a cognitive process and expose some of the most relevant in our normal functioning.

  • Related article: "Cognition: definition, main processes and operation"

Conceptualizing: what are cognitive processes?

Cognitive processes are understood as all that set of mental operations that we perform more or less sequentially in order to obtain some type of mental product. It is about each of the operations that we perform that allow us capture, encode, store and work with information coming from both outside and inside.

All and every one of the cognitive processes that we carry out are fundamental to achieve our adaptation to the social environment, and even our survival, through its influence on behavior. We have to think that every physical or mental act that we carry out, from taking a cutlery to eating to singing in the shower, kissing someone or simply writing this article supposes that we have processed a series of information and that we are operating with them.

One aspect to keep in mind is that it is generally considered that cognitive process and emotion go separately. However, it is possible to observe that in the processing of information is of great importance emotional activation , since it contributes to endowing the experience with a meaning and is fundamental when it comes to processing information and assessing it. That is why, under this perspective, the fact that it formed part of said cognitive processes could be considered.

Types of cognitive processes

There is a great amount of cognitive processes, but broadly they could be divided into two types: the basic and the superior.

Basic cognitive processes

The basic cognitive processes they serve as a basis for the subsequent elaboration and processing of information . They are those that allow information to be captured and maintained in our system in order to work with it.


Sometimes separated in sensation and perception, this type of basic cognitive process is what allows information to be processed by our system. We capture the sensations through the different receptors of those that we have in our organism and later we perceive them when organizing the information of the receivers and giving it a sense.

Within this category we would include, among other aspects, the perceptive analysis and organization and the reception of information.


Attention is the cognitive process that allows the human being to select, focus and maintain their mental resources in a specific stimulation, stop dedicating them or separate resources. exist different types of attention , among them the focused or the sustained, the divided, the voluntary or the involuntary, the open or the disguised.

  • Maybe you're interested: "The 15 types of attention and what are their characteristics"

Processing of information

Closely linked to attention and perception, the processing of information is one of the basic cognitive processes which allows us to capture and process processed information.

In this sense we must take into account the existence of automatic processing (involuntary and with little interference with other processes) and controlled (requiring a certain level of mental effort), serial (sequential) and parallel (several processes are carried out at the time), bottom-up (part of the stimulation to generate the processing) and top-down (the expectations lead us to process the stimulation) and global or local (depending on whether we first capture the totality or the details of the stimulation) .


Another of the basic processes, memory plays a fundamental role in cognition since it allows to maintain in the system the information previously perceived and work with her both short and long term .

Within the memory we can find the declarative (within which we find the autobiographical and the procedural) and the non-declarative (as for example the procedural memory). The working memory is also part of it , an essential element that allows us to work with the information gathered today or recover elements of long-term memory.

  • Related article: "Types of memory: how memory stores the human brain?"

Higher cognitive processes

Cognitive processes are considered superior to those that suppose the maximum level of information integration, being processes that are derived from the union of information from various sensory modalities and basic cognitive processes. They are often conscious and require mental effort to perform them.


The main and best-known higher cognitive process is thought. In it we integrate all the information and from it we perform different mental operations. It allows us to form concepts, make judgments and deductions and learn . Some of the types of thinking we can find are inductive, deductive, and hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Within thought is included the capacity of representation and symbolization as well as the analysis and integration of information, as well as the making of inferences.

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Executive functions

Although they could be incorporated as part of the thought or separated into different basic processes, the set of executive functions allow us to manage the behavior and the set of cognitive processes through the implementation of different skills such as behavioral inhibition, planning or decision making among many. It is, then, functions that allow orienting behavior toward medium and long-term goals and that prevent urgent impulses from taking control of behavior.


The learning capacity is largely derived from the ability to pay attention to the stimulation and then store it in the memory and be able to recover it later.


The language is considered a superior cognitive process, which in addition to communicate with the environment and our peers is used to internally regulate our behavior (through self-instructions). It is important to keep in mind that we do not speak only of oral language, but also of other types of communication .

However, it is important to note that language is not the same as thought. This has been known from empirical tests in people with aphasia, that is, they have the brain structures responsible for the language destroyed and not operational.


Creativity is considered by some authors as a superior cognitive process, since it supposes elaboration of strategies or novel ways of thinking and away from what has been learned and acquired through experience.

Thus, the cognitive processes that belong to the field of creativity are those that escape the conventional routes of thought, those that from an image or an intuition turn an idea around and, from there, create something new.


It is the cognitive process by which we link and dedicate our energy to a particular company, relating cognition, emotion and arousal. Thanks to it we can direct our behavior and can facilitate or hinder the acquisition or processing of information. We can also find different types of motivation, such as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The behavioral criticism

It is important that not all the scope of psychology accepts the existence of cognitive processes. In particular, many variants of the paradigm of behaviorism indicate that these are, at most, a metaphor of what actually happens. For these behavioral perspectives, what we call mental processes are in any case attributions to internal mental phenomena that in theory explain part of what really explains (or should explain) psychology: behavior, understood as relationships between stimuli and actions that can be modified by training or learning.

A) Yes, for behaviorism the concept of mental process is an unnecessary leap of faith , since it is not necessary to assume that there are private psychological processes that generate from the inside out the behavior that we can observe.

Bibliographic references:

  • Blomberg, O. (2011). "Concepts of cognition for cognitive engineering". International Journal of Aviation Psychology. 21 (1): 85-104.
  • T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 7: Memory." p. 126
  • Von Eckardt, Barbara (1996). What is cognitive science ?. Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 45 - 72.

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You - Crash Course Psychology #15 (July 2024).

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