Cognition is "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and
understanding through thought, experience, and the senses". It
encompasses processes such as knowledge, attention, memory and working
memory, judgment and evaluation, reasoning and "computation", problem
solving and decision making, comprehension and production of language.
Human cognition is conscious and unconscious, concrete or abstract, as
well as intuitive (like knowledge of a language) and conceptual (like
a model of a language). Cognitive processes use existing knowledge and
generate new knowledge.
The processes are analyzed from different perspectives within
different contexts, notably in the fields of linguistics, anesthesia,
neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, education, philosophy,
anthropology, biology, systemics, logic, and computer science.
These and other different approaches to the analysis of cognition are
synthesised in the developing field of cognitive science, a
progressively autonomous academic discipline. Within psychology and
philosophy, the concept of cognition is closely related to abstract
concepts such as mind and intelligence. It encompasses the mental
functions, mental processes (thoughts), and states of intelligent
entities (humans, collaborative groups, human organizations, highly
autonomous machines, and artificial intelligences).
Thus, the term's usage varies across disciplines; for example, in
psychology and cognitive science, "cognition" usually refers to an
information processing view of an individual's psychological
functions. It is also used in a branch of social psychology called
social cognition to explain attitudes, attribution, and group
dynamics. In cognitive psychology and cognitive engineering,
cognition is typically assumed to be information processing in a
participant’s or operator’s mind or brain.
Cognition can in some specific and abstract sense also be
4 Social process
5 Piaget's theory of cognitive development
6 Common experiments
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The word cognition comes from the
Latin verb cognosco (con 'with' and
gnōscō 'know') (itself a cognate of the Greek verb
γι(γ)νώσκω gi(g)nόsko, meaning 'I know, perceive' (noun:
γνώσις gnόsis 'knowledge')) meaning 'to conceptualize' or 'to
Cognition is a word that dates back to the 15th century, when it meant
"thinking and awareness".
Attention to the cognitive process came
about more than eighteen centuries ago, beginning with
his interest in the inner workings of the mind and how they affect the
Aristotle focused on cognitive areas pertaining to
memory, perception, and mental imagery. The Greek philosopher found
great importance in ensuring that his studies were based on empirical
evidence; scientific information that is gathered through observation
and conscientious experimentation. Centuries later, as psychology
became a burgeoning field of study in Europe and then gained a
following in America, other scientists like Wilhelm Wundt, Herman
Ebbinghaus, Mary Whiton Calkins, and
William James would offer their
contributions to the study of cognition.
Wilhelm Wundt emphasized the notion of what he called introspection:
examining the inner feelings of an individual. With introspection, the
subject had to be careful to describe his or her feelings in the most
objective manner possible in order for Wundt to find the information
scientific. Though Wundt's contributions are by no means
minimal, modern psychologists find his methods to be quite subjective
and choose to rely on more objective procedures of experimentation to
make conclusions about the human cognitive process.
Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909) conducted cognitive studies that
mainly examined the function and capacity of human memory. Ebbinghaus
developed his own experiment in which he constructed over 2,000
syllables made out of nonexistent words, for instance EAS. He then
examined his own personal ability to learn these non-words. He
purposely chose non-words as opposed to real words to control for the
influence of pre-existing experience on what the words might
symbolize, thus enabling easier recollection of them.
Ebbinghaus observed and hypothesized a number of variables that may
have affected his ability to learn and recall the non-words he
created. One of the reasons, he concluded, was the amount of time
between the presentation of the list of stimuli and the recitation or
recall of same. Ebbinghaus was the first to record and plot a
"learning curve," and a "forgetting curve." His work heavily
influenced the study of serial position and its effect on memory,
discussed in subsequent sections.
Mary Whiton Calkins
Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) was an influential American pioneer
in the realm of psychology. Her work also focused on the human memory
capacity. A common theory, called the recency effect, can be
attributed to the studies that she conducted. The recency effect,
also discussed in the subsequent experiment section, is the tendency
for individuals to be able to accurately recollect the final items
presented in a sequence of stimuli. Calkin's theory is closely related
to the aforementioned study and conclusion of the memory experiments
conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus.
William James (1842–1910) is another pivotal figure in the history
of cognitive science. James was quite discontent with Wundt's emphasis
on introspection and Ebbinghaus' use of nonsense stimuli. He instead
chose to focus on the human learning experience in everyday life and
its importance to the study of cognition. James' most significant
contribution to the study and theory of cognition was his textbook
Psychology that preliminarily examines aspects of
cognition such as perception, memory, reasoning, and attention.
When the mind makes a generalization such as the concept of tree, it
extracts similarities from numerous examples; the simplification
enables higher-level thinking (abstract thinking).
The sort of mental processes described as cognitive are largely
influenced by research which has successfully used this paradigm in
the past, likely starting with Thomas Aquinas. Consequently, this
description tends to apply to processes such as memory, association,
concept formation, pattern recognition, language, attention,
perception, action, problem solving and mental imagery.
Traditionally, emotion was not thought of as a cognitive process. This
division is now regarded as largely artificial, and much research is
currently being undertaken to examine the cognitive psychology of
emotion; research also includes one's awareness of one's own
strategies and methods of cognition called metacognition and includes
Empirical research into cognition is usually scientific and
quantitative, or involves creating models to describe or explain
While few people would deny that cognitive processes are a function of
the brain, a cognitive theory will not necessarily make reference to
the brain or other biological process (compare neurocognitive). It may
purely describe behavior in terms of information flow or function.
Relatively recent fields of study such as cognitive science and
neuropsychology aim to bridge this gap, using cognitive paradigms to
understand how the brain implements these information-processing
functions (see also cognitive neuroscience), or how pure
information-processing systems (e.g., computers) can simulate
cognition (see also artificial intelligence). The branch of psychology
that studies brain injury to infer normal cognitive function is called
cognitive neuropsychology. The links of cognition to evolutionary
demands are studied through the investigation of animal cognition. And
conversely, evolutionary-based perspectives can inform hypotheses
about cognitive functional systems' evolutionary psychology.
The theoretical school of thought derived from the cognitive approach
is often called cognitivism.
The phenomenal success of the cognitive approach can be seen by its
current dominance as the core model in contemporary psychology
(usurping behaviorism in the late 1950s).
Cognition is severely damaged in dementia.
For every individual, the social context in which he or she is
embedded provides the symbols of his or her representation and
linguistic expression. The human society sets the environment where
the newborn will be socialized and develop his or her cognition. For
example, face perception in human babies emerges by the age of two
months: young children at a playground or swimming pool develop their
social recognition by being exposed to multiple faces and associating
the experiences to those faces.
Education has the explicit task in
society of developing cognition. Choices are made regarding the
environment and permitted action that lead to a formed experience.
Language acquisition is an example of an emergent behavior. From a
large systemic perspective, cognition is considered closely related to
the social and human organization functioning and constrains. For
example, the macro-choices made by the teachers influence the
micro-choices made by students..
Piaget's theory of cognitive development
For years, sociologists and psychologists have conducted studies on
cognitive development or the construction of human thought or mental
Jean Piaget was one of the most important and influential people in
the field of Developmental Psychology. He believed that humans are
unique in comparison to animals because we have the capacity to do
"abstract symbolic reasoning." His work can be compared to Lev
Vygotsky, Sigmund Freud, and
Erik Erikson who were also great
contributors in the field of Developmental Psychology. Today, Piaget
is known for studying the cognitive development in children. He
studied his own three children and their intellectual development and
came up with a theory that describes the stages children pass through
Age or Period
Infancy (0–2 years)
Intelligence is present; motor activity but no symbols; knowledge is
developing yet limited; knowledge is based on experiences/
interactions; mobility allows child to learn new things; some language
skills are developed at the end of this stage. The goal is to develop
object permanence; achieves basic understanding of causality, time,
Toddler and Early Childhood (2–7 years)
Symbols or language skills are present; memory and imagination are
developed; nonreversible and nonlogical thinking; shows intuitive
problem solving; begins to see relationships; grasps concept of
conservation of numbers; egocentric thinking predominates.
Concrete operational stage
Elementary and Early Adolescence (7–12 years)
Logical and systematic form of intelligence; manipulation of symbols
related to concrete objects; thinking is now characterized by
reversibility and the ability to take the role of another; grasps
concepts of the conservation of mass, length, weight, and volume;
operational thinking predominates nonreversible and egocentric
Formal operational stage
Adolescence and Adulthood (12 years and on)
Logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts; Acquires
flexibility in thinking as well as the capacities for abstract
thinking and mental hypothesis testing; can consider possible
alternatives in complex reasoning and problem solving.
The serial position experiment is meant to test a theory of memory
that states that when information is given in a serial manner, we tend
to remember information in the beginning of the sequence, called the
primacy effect, and information in the end of the sequence, called the
recency effect. Consequently, information given in the middle of the
sequence is typically forgotten, or not recalled as easily. This study
predicts that the recency effect is stronger than the primacy effect,
because the information that is most recently learned is still in
working memory when asked to be recalled. Information that is learned
first still has to go through a retrieval process. This experiment
focuses on human memory processes.
The word superiority experiment presents a subject with a word, or a
letter by itself, for a brief period of time, i.e. 40ms, and they are
then asked to recall the letter that was in a particular location in
the word. By theory, the subject should be better able to correctly
recall the letter when it was presented in a word than when it was
presented in isolation. This experiment focuses on human speech and
In the Brown-Peterson experiment, participants are briefly presented
with a trigram and in one particular version of the experiment, they
are then given a distractor task, asking them to identify whether a
sequence of words are in fact words, or non-words (due to being
misspelled, etc.). After the distractor task, they are asked to recall
the trigram from before the distractor task. In theory, the longer the
distractor task, the harder it will be for participants to correctly
recall the trigram. This experiment focuses on human short-term
During the memory span experiment, each subject is presented with a
sequence of stimuli of the same kind; words depicting objects,
numbers, letters that sound similar, and letters that sound
dissimilar. After being presented with the stimuli, the subject is
asked to recall the sequence of stimuli that they were given in the
exact order in which it was given. In one particular version of the
experiment, if the subject recalled a list correctly, the list length
was increased by one for that type of material, and vice versa if it
was recalled incorrectly. The theory is that people have a memory span
of about seven items for numbers, the same for letters that sound
dissimilar and short words. The memory span is projected to be shorter
with letters that sound similar and with longer words.
In one version of the visual search experiment, a participant is
presented with a window that displays circles and squares scattered
across it. The participant is to identify whether there is a green
circle on the window. In the "featured" search, the subject is
presented with several trial windows that have blue squares or circles
and one green circle or no green circle in it at all. In the
"conjunctive" search, the subject is presented with trial windows that
have blue circles or green squares and a present or absent green
circle whose presence the participant is asked to identify. What is
expected is that in the feature searches, reaction time, that is the
time it takes for a participant to identify whether a green circle is
present or not, should not change as the number of distractors
increases. Conjunctive searches where the target is absent should have
a longer reaction time than the conjunctive searches where the target
is present. The theory is that in feature searches, it is easy to spot
the target, or if it is absent, because of the difference in color
between the target and the distractors. In conjunctive searches where
the target is absent, reaction time increases because the subject has
to look at each shape to determine whether it is the target or not
because some of the distractors if not all of them, are the same color
as the target stimuli. Conjunctive searches where the target is
present take less time because if the target is found, the search
between each shape stops.
The semantic network of knowledge representation systems has been
studied in various paradigms. One of the oldest paradigms is the
leveling and sharpening of stories as they are repeated from memory
studied by Bartlett. The semantic differential used factor analysis to
determine the main meanings of words, finding that value or "goodness"
of words is the first factor. More controlled experiments examine the
categorical relationships of words in free recall. The hierarchical
structure of words has been explicitly mapped in George Miller's
Wordnet. More dynamic models of semantic networks have been created
and tested with neural network experiments based on computational
systems such as latent semantic analysis (LSA), Bayesian analysis, and
multidimensional factor analysis. The semantics (meaning) of words is
studied by all the disciplines of cognitive science.
Information processing technology and aging
Outline of human intelligence – topic tree presenting the traits,
capacities, models, and research fields of human intelligence, and
Outline of thought – topic tree that identifies many types of
thoughts, types of thinking, aspects of thought, related fields, and
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ISBN 978-0-300-12385-2. Lay summary (PDF) (21 November
Wikiversity has learning resources about Cognition
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Cognitive psychology
Look up cognition in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Cognition An international journal publishing theoretical and
experimental papers on the study of the mind.
Information on music cognition, University of Amsterdam
Cognitie.NL Information on cognition research, Netherlands
Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and University of Amsterdam
Emotional and Decision Making Lab, Carnegie Mellon, EDM Lab
The Limits of
Cognition – an article describing the evolution
of mammals' cognitive abilities
Half-heard phone conversations reduce cognitive performance
The limits of intelligence Douglas Fox, Scientific American, 14 June
Perception as interpretation
Higher nervous activity
Human intelligence topics
Fluid and crystallized intelligence
Models and theories
Fluid and crystallized intelligence
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