Cognition: definition, main processes and functioning

Cognition allows us to perceive our environment, to learn from it and to remember the information we have obtained, In addition to solving problems that arise in the course of life or communicating 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 ability of certain living things to obtain information from their environment and, from their processing by the brain, to interpret and make sense of it. In this sense, cognitive processes depend on both sensory capacities and the central nervous system.

It is a concept of very broad meaning which can be largely assimilated to 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 in turn overlaps with problem solving.

In the field of psychology, cognition is understood as the processing of any type of information through mental functions. Historically, this conceptualization stems from the traditional separation between the rational and the affective; however, today emotion is often viewed as a cognitive process.

Throughout history, many authors have proposed that cognition, especially that which takes place consciously, should be the primary 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 a great deal to the theories of information processing and of cognitivist orientation in general, much appreciated from the mid-twentieth century. These paradigms have favored the consolidation of interdisciplinary fields as relevant as neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Main cognitive processes

There are many faculties that make up cognition; we will only focus on some of the more general and relevant, Such as attention, language and metacognition (or knowledge of one’s own cognition).

Also, and taking into account current knowledge, we will include emotion as a cognitive process in its own right.

1. Perception

The term “perception” refers to the absorption 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 is involved.

2. Attention

Attention is the general ability to focus cognitive resources on specific stimuli or mental content; therefore, it plays a regulatory role in the functioning of other cognitive processes. This ability is divided into many facets, so that attention can be understood as selection, focus, activation, alertness or expectation.

3. Learning and memory

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

Memory is a concept closely related to learning, Because it encompasses the encoding, storage and retrieval of information. The structures of the limbic system such as the hippocampus, amygdala, fornix, nucleus accumbens or mammary bodies of the thalamus are mainly involved in these processes.

4. Language

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

5. Emotion

Although emotion is traditionally separated from cognition (understood in a way equivalent to thought), increased 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 of emotion.

    6. Reasoning and problem solving

    Reasoning is a high-level cognitive process based on the use of more basic processes to solve problems or achieve goals 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, sparked increasing interest in the study of cognition applied to interpersonal relationships. In this perspective, transcendent models have been developed, such as attribution theories and schema theory on the representation of knowledge.

    8. Metacognition

    Metacognition is the faculty that allows us to be aware of our own cognitive processes and think around them. Particular attention has been paid to metamemory, as the use of learning strategies and memory enhancement is very helpful in improving cognitive performance.

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