Cognition allows us to perceive our environment, learn from it and remember the information we have obtained. It also enables us to solve problems and communicate with other people. In this article we will describe what exactly cognition means and what are the main neurological processes associated with it.
Definition of cognition
The term cognition can be defined as the ability of living beings to obtain information from their environment. Then by processing information, to interpret it and give it meaning. In this sense, cognitive processes depend on both sensory abilities and the central nervous system.
It is a very broad concept that can be roughly equated with that of “thought”. However, this term can also refer to reasoning and problem solving which is one of the processes that make up cognition.
In the field of cognitive 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 emotional. However, today emotion is treated as a cognitive process as well.
Throughout history, many authors have proposed that cognition, particularly that which takes place consciously, should be the main object of study. Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus and William James began to study basic cognitive processes at the end of the 19th century.
Current developments in the study of cognition owe much to their theories of information processing. In general, cognitivism as a theoretical orientation increased in popularity since the mid-20th century. This paradigm allowed the consolidation of important interdisciplinary fields such as neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.
Main cognitive processes
The processes that make up cognition are multiple. We will focus only on some of the most general and relevant, such as attention, language and metacognition (knowledge about one’s own cognition). Taking into account current knowledge, we are including emotion as a cognitive state as well.
The term refers to the capture of stimuli by the sensory organs, and their transmission to higher levels of the nervous system. It is 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 are involved.
Attention is the general ability to focus cognitive resources on specific mental stimuli or information. Therefore, it has a regulatory role in the functioning of other cognitive processes. Attention can be divided into several stages, so it can be understood as selection, concentration, activation, vigilance or expectations.
3. Memory and learning
Learning is defined as the acquisition of new information or the modification of existing knowledge. To date, different types of learning have been described, such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning which are associated with synaptic plasticity.
Memory is a concept closely related to learning, since it encompasses the encoding, storage and retrieval of information. Structures of the limbic system such as the hippocampus, amygdala, fornix, nucleus accumbens, or the thalamus are key in these processes.
Language is the faculty that allows human beings to use complex methods of communication. From an evolutionary point of view, language is the development of nonspecific vocalizations and gestures. These were used by our ancestors and resemble those used by other animal species.
Although emotion has initially been separated from cognition, increasing knowledge in psychology has revealed that the two processes work similarly. The level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) are determining factors in emotion.
6. Reasoning and problem solving
Reasoning is a high-level cognitive process that is based on the use of more basic processes to solve problems or achieve objectives. There are different types of reasoning depending on how we classify them. If we only refer to logical criteria, then we have deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning.
7. Social cognition
The popularization of social psychology, led to an increase in the study of cognition associated with interpersonal relationships. From this perspective, different knowledge models have been developed such as the attribution theory and schema.
Metacognition is the faculty that allows us to be aware of our own cognitive processes and to reflect on them. Particular attention has been paid to metamemory, since the use of strategies to enhance learning and recall is very useful for improving cognitive performance.
Can we improve our cognitive functioning?
Yes. The human brain has an amazing ability to adapt and change, even in old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. Thanks to it, if properly stimulated, the brain can form new neural connections, alter existing connections and adapt to change.
Cognitive stimulation refers to the set of techniques and strategies to improve the effectiveness of cognitive abilities and executive functions. Memory, attention, language, reasoning and planning, among others, are examples of such functions.
Reading, for example, is one of the most recognized activities to promote cognitive stimulation. In addition to providing us with knowledge, reading is a great activity to promote concentration, exercise memory and feed the imagination. Learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, attending general culture classes or talks can also be beneficial for our cognition.