Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mental processes that underlie behavior. These mental processes comprise a number of areas, including attention, memory, perception, thinking, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, language, knowledge representation, mental imagery, and motivation and concept formation. This focus on mental processes contrasts with behaviorism, which studied only behaviors that could be directly observed. Cognitive psychology is flourishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and its principles have been applied to clinical and counseling psychology, personality theory, developmental psychology, social psychology, comparative psychology, forensics and legal psychology, and education, among other disciplines. Other independent schools of thought have developed from cognitive psychology, including cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience.
Some historians have argued that cognitive psychology represents a shift in the psychological paradigm away from the limits of behaviorism (Gardner 1985; Sperry 1993). Others suggest that cognitive psychology simply represents a return to the same topics that existed prior to the founding of behaviorism (Hergenhahn 1994, p. 555). Extensive evidence indicates that cognitive psychology does not represent the study of a novel topic but a return to a focus on mental events that behaviorism failed to allow. Throughout the history of psychology, some form of cognitive psychology always existed (Hergenhahn 1997, p. 551). The questions raised by cognitive psychologists also occupied early thinkers. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE), for example, wrote on various topics in cognitive psychology. However, during the 1930s to 1950s, when radical behaviorism was experiencing its strongest period, it was generally accepted that cognitive events either did not exist or should be ignored by psychologists because they could not be studied objectively (Hergenhahn 1997, p. 551). However, as psychologists became less captivated by behaviorism, they began to shift toward a cognitive approach that was broader in scope than behaviorism.
The Downfall of Behaviorism Several findings led to the downfall of behaviorism and the eventual rise of cognitive psychology. According to strict behaviorism, two things must occur if an organism is to learn: (1) the organism must actually perform the behavior, and (2) the behavior must lead to some type of a consequence (i.e., reinforcement or punishment). The continuation of behaviorism’s control of psychology rested on these basic premises. However, three major findings showed these premises to be unnecessary: cognitive maps, latent learning, and observational learning (or modeling).
Cognitive Maps and Latent Learning The American psychologist Edward Chace Tolman (1886-1959) is best known for his research on cognitive maps and latent learning. His work with cognitive maps showed that an organism could possess a mental representation of a physical space that would allow the organism to follow alternate routes to a food reward even if the organism was never reinforced for that route in the past (Tolman et al. 1946). Tolman’s work with latent learning showed that rats were able to learn their way through a maze even if they never received reinforcement while they explored the maze (Tolman and Honzik 1930). In Tolman’s study, the number of errors made by rats that were regularly rewarded gradually decreased as they learned their way through a maze. Other rats in a no-reward condition received no reinforcement for the first ten days of training but were simply placed in the maze for the same amount of time as the regularly rewarded rats. On the eleventh day, these rats were given a food reward. Much to the behaviorists’ surprise, these rats made the same number of errors as the regularly rewarded rats on the twelfth day of training, rather than showing the gradual learning curve predicted by behaviorists. This research showed that the rats learned the maze, even without reinforcement.
Observational Learning and Modeling Psychologist Albert Bandura is probably best known for his work demonstrating observational learning. Bandura showed that organisms can learn by watching another organism receive reinforcement or punishment (Bandura et al. 1966). Thus, it is not necessary that the learner actually perform the behavior, nor must the learner receive reinforcement or punishment in order to learn.
Each of these findings failed to validate the most basic behaviorist premises. Additionally, many psychologists began to become less enchanted with behaviorism because of the limitations concerning what could be studied. For example, behaviorists felt that psychology should study only topics or phenomena that could be studied objectively and directly observed. Although cognitive psychology retained the practice of studying topics in an objective, scientific manner, the inclusion of only those topics that were based on direct observation was eliminated. While many research topics of interest to psychologists (thinking, perception, attention, motivation, emotion, decision processes, problem solving, language, etc.) stood outside the realm of psychological study under behaviorism, many of these topics became central to the cognitive psychology movement and are still studied today.
The Rise of Cognitive Psychology Richard Robins, Samuel Gosling, and Kenneth Craik (1999) have presented an analysis of the gradual decline in the behaviorist approach and the eventual rise of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology became more and more influential as it overtook the behaviorist approach by 1970 based on the number of articles published in the most prominent psychology journals. There were, however, several important earlier publications and studies that led to the resurgence of cognitive psychology.
The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) demonstrated in 1885 that complex mental processes, such as memory, could be studied using an objective, experimental approach. He studied nonsense syllables (or letter strings that did not make up words, such as YHB) and recorded the number of trials it took to learn the list to perfection. He then measured the savings score (i.e., how much time was saved as one learned the list to perfection again) as a measure of memory.
The Principles of Psychology (1890) by William James (1842-1910) cited numerous studies investigating cognitive phenomena and discussed many topics that currently interest cognitive psychologists, such as attention, perception, memory, and reasoning. James also argued that the human mind does not simply react to stimuli in the environment (a common behaviorist idea) but instead is dynamic and interactive.
Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932), by British psychologist Frederic Charles Bartlett (1886-1969), showed that memory was predictable and subject to systematic errors. In particular, Bartlett noted that memory errors were influenced by the rememberer’s attitudes, beliefs, schemas, and preconceptions. He proposed that memory is a constructive process such that our own interpretations and biases have a huge impact on what we remember, rather than remembering strictly verbatim information.
American psychologist George A. Miller is probably the one scientist who has had the largest impact in the formation of cognitive psychology as a formal school of thought. In fact, many historians have suggested that his article “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956) was the official beginning of cognitive psychology. This article essentially defined the capacity limits of short-term memory.
Several additional events were also critical for the development of cognitive psychology as a formal school of thought. World War II (1939-1945) led to the development of cognitive psychology and human factors engineering (Proctor and Van Zandt 1994, p. 5). As more complex instruments were developed, the U.S. military became increasingly interested in how humans interacted with such instruments. These questions involved such topics as attention, memory, perception, and decision making. On September 11, 1956, many important researchers attended a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and become excited about the direction of this new approach (Matlin 2005, p. 7). So important was this symposium that some historians have argued that this date marks the official beginning of cognitive psychology.
German-born psychologist Ulric Neisser coined the term cognitive psychology with the publication of his book Cognitive Psychology in 1967. The journal Cognitive Psychology was founded in 1969, providing an outlet for researchers specifically interested in cognitive topics. Fifteen additional journals focusing on cognitive psychology were established during the next twenty years, indicating a rise in interest in cognitive topics and the rise of cognitive psychology.
Attention. This area of research looks at an array of topics that focus on our ability to pay attention to specific stimuli while excluding other stimuli (selective attention) or to pay attention to two stimuli at the same time (divided attention). Topics include pattern recognition, object recognition, selective attention, divided attention, and subliminal perception.
Perception. Perception is the use of previous knowledge to gather and interpret stimuli registered by the senses (Matlin 2005). This process actively organizes and interprets sensory information in order to make it meaningful. Perception is usually discussed in conjunction with sensory processes with simple stimuli, but it is also studied in terms of how it functions in more complex social situations. For example, if someone bumped into you while walking down the street, your perception of the incident might be dependent upon the characteristics of the other individual. You might interpret it as an accident if an elderly woman bumped into you, but your interpretation might be different if the other person was a member of a group of boisterous teenagers.
Memory. This broad area of research focuses on the encoding, storage, and retrieval processes involved when one remembers information at a later time. Experts generally agree that memories are a result of not only the specific event that is being remembered but also the specific thoughts, emotions, and knowledge that the rememberer possesses. Furthermore, events or thoughts that occur after the encoded event also have an impact on what is remembered.
Language. This area of research focuses on how humans (and nonhumans) acquire and use language. There is also a major focus on the specific language rules (or grammar) that accompany language processing.
Thinking. This broad area of research includes various topics such as problem solving, decision making, mental imagery, and logic. The general focus is on the internal thought processes. Such thought processes may occur prior to overt behavior or during overt behavior, or they may occur as a result of external stimuli. Cognitive neuroscience may use brain-imaging techniques to provide objective measurements of when thinking occurs and which part of the brain is active during specific tasks.
Knowledge Representation. This area of research investigates how information is stored and accessed by the brain. Much of the research in this area focuses on mental models that explain how knowledge is stored in the brain. The two main codes that have been proposed for knowledge representation are based upon analog or propositional codes. Other major areas of research include categorization and how people utilize schemas and scripts in everyday life.
Artificial Intelligence. The information-processing approach to cognitive psychology uses the computer as a model for the human mind. This branch of cognitive psychology led to connectionist frameworks and the parallel distributed processing approach to studying cognition. The analogy that is the basis for the study of artificial intelligence is that computer connections between stored knowledge or idea units are similar to the physical, neural networks present in the brain (McClelland and Rumelhart 1985).
Cognitive Neuroscience. This area combines the basic research techniques and issues from cognitive psychology with various methods (e.g., brain scanning, event-related potential, and single-cell recording) to evaluate the physiological functioning of the brain. Cognitive neuroscience has helped scientists better understand how the brain works and what each part of the brain does, and it provides insight into brain abnormalities or damage.
Cognitive Science. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary field that studies the workings of the mind by combining the approaches of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. It may include other fields, such as philosophy, sociology, linguistics, and anthropology (Sobel 2001). Cognitive science takes a more holistic approach, since it utilizes techniques and theories from many different fields of study.
SEE ALSO Memory; Social Cognition
Bandura, Albert, Joan E. Grusec, and Frances L. Menlove. 1966. Observational Learning as a Function of Symbolization and Incentive Set. Child Development 37: 499-506.
Gardner, Howard. 1985. The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books.
Hergenhahn, B. R. 1994. An Introduction to the History of Psychology. 3rd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole. (5th ed. 2005. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).
James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.
Matlin, Margaret W. 2005. Cognition. 6th ed. New York: Wiley.
McClelland, James L., and David E. Rumelhart. 1985. Distributed Memory and the Representation of General and Specific Information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 114: 159-188.
Miller, George A. 1956. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 63: 81-97.
Neisser, Ulric. 1967. Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Proctor, Robert W., and Trisha Van Zandt. 1994. Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Robins, Richard W., Samuel D. Gosling, and Kenneth H. Craik. 1999. An Empirical Analysis of Trends in Psychology. American Psychologist 54: 117-128.
Sobel, Carolyn P. 2001. The Cognitive Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Sperry, Roger W. 1993. The Impact and Promise of the Cognitive Revolution. American Psychologist 48: 878-885.
Tolman, Edward C., and Charles H. Honzik. 1930. Introduction and Removal of Reward, and Maze Performance in Rats. University of California Publications in Psychology 4: 257-273.
Tolman, Edward C., B. F. Ritchie, and D. Kalish. 1946. Studies in Spatial Learning: II. Place Learning vs. Response Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology 36: 221-229.
Jeffrey S. Anastasi
Cognition is any form of abstract thought or reasoning (as distinct from emotion). While cognition cannot be neatly dissected into a set of well-defined processes, psychologists point out that it reveals the interplay of such critical psychological mechanisms as perception, attention, memory, imagery, verbal function, judgment, problem-solving, decision-making, with a mixture of other factors, including physical health, educational background, socio-economic status, and cultural identity. A dynamic process, since both the world and the individual are subject to change, cognition is a vital function which enables an individual to exist in the world as an independent and active participant.
Before psychology existed as a scientific discipline, the study of cognition was the domain of philosophy. There are two fundamental scientific paradigms—with many variations—regarding cognition in Western philosophy: idealism and empiricism. According to idealistic view, represented by such thinkers as Plato (c. 427–347 BC) and Rene´ Descartes (1596–1650), innate ideas are the crucial component in cognition; in other words, knowledge is determined by what has been in an individual’s mind since—or before—birth. The opposing, empiricist view, is succinctly expressed by John Locke’s (1632– 1704) dictum that, without sense-perceptions, the mind is an empty slate, a tabula rasa. While certain psychologists struggled to determine which of the two paradigms was dominant, the celebrated Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) developed a theoretical model of cognition which recognized the importance of both the innate/genetic and the empirical components of cognition. It could be said that cognition depends on both components, just as the
Concept— A mental construct, based on experience, used to identify and separate classes of phenomena. The perceived distinctions between cats and dogs allow us to formulate the concepts “cat” and “dog.”
Creativity— The ability to find solutions to problems and answers to questions without relying on established methods.
Empiricism— A general philosophical position holding that all knowledge comes from experience, and that humans are not born with any ideas or concepts independent of personal experience.
Idealism— Scientific thinking based on the view that ultimate reality is immaterial. Imagination—The ability to create alternate worlds without losing contact with reality.
Judgment— The ability to evaluate events and statements.
Percept— The mental representation of a single perceived event or object.
Scientific paradigm— A general view shared by groups of scientists.
successful operation of a computer program requires both the hardware and the software.
Cognition starts with perception. Perception, which occurs in space and time, provides the general framework for cognition; perception is also the process of becoming aware of a stimulus, which can be external or internal. The next step is conceptualization, after realizing the existence of something, we try to figure out what it is: the percept becomes a concept. For example, cognition happens at the instance when the perception “something coming our way” crystallizes as the concept “dog.” If the dog is unfriendly, we will use judgment to evaluate our newly acquired knowledge of the situation in an effort to avoid injury. Fortunately, while problem-solving is a key application of the power of judgment in everyday life, not all problems are unpleasant. Working on a mathematical problem, for instance, can be a pleasant, one could say aesthetic, experience; the same could be said for any problems requiring creativity and ingenuity, abilities of a higher order than simpler methods, such as the trial-and-error approach. In the realm of the scientific imagination, cognition can, in rare moments, occur as an unexpected flash of illumination. The problem appears to solve itself. One such extraordinary experience is an often quoted mathematical discovery by the French mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincare´ (1854–1912). Unable to fall asleep one night, Poincare´ thought about a tough problem that he had been grappling with: “Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a new class of Fuchian functions.”
Poincare´’s experience shows that cognition, while originally stemming from less complex psychological mechanisms, such as perception, is not literally tied to the world of sense-perception. Without contradicting the statement about perception providing the spatio-temporal context of cognition, we can say that cognition also operates in the seemingly unlimited expanses of imaginary space (as in art and mathematics) and inner space (as in introspection). In addition, while cognition is traditionally defined as rational and conceptual, it can contain such non-intellectual components as feelings, intuitions, and physical acts. The process of learning to play a musical instrument, for example, although a rationally structured endeavor, contains many repetitive, mechanical operations that could be defined as elements of unconscious learning. When the source of new knowledge is unknown, when we do not know why we know something, we are probably dealing with the hidden, silent, non-conceptual dimensions of cognition. A new skill, insight, ability, or perspective suddenly appears “out of nowhere.” But this “nowhere” is not really outside the realm of cognition. As in the case of perception, conceptual thinking provides a framework but does not limit cognition. Finally, that cognition is an open-ended process is also demonstrated by the seemingly unlimited human capacity for learning, introspection, change, and adaptation to a changing world.
Although it was long believed that only human beings were capable of rational thought or cognition, the study of animal cognition is a thriving field today.
See also Brain.
Matlin, Margaret. Cognition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
Piaget, Jean. Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge. New York: Viking, 1971.
Reisberg, Dan. Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Cognition is the act of knowing or the process involved in knowing. When we "know" something, it means that we are not only aware or conscious of it, but that we can, in a way, make some sort of judgment about it. Cognition is therefore a very broad term that covers a complicated mental process involving such functions as perception, learning, memory, and problem solving.
How we know
The nature of cognition, or how we know, has been the subject of investigation since the time of the ancient Greeks. It has been studied by both philosophers and scientists. Around 1970, a new field of investigation called cognitive psychology began to emerge. Many of its practitioners study the brain and compare it to a computer in terms of its information storage and retrieval functions. However, most people who study cognition recognize that they are not focusing just on how the brain works as an organ, but are really more concerned with how the mind actually works. While there are still several competing theories all trying to explain how the mind works (or how we know), one idea common to most of them is that the mind builds concepts—which are like large symbolic groupings, patterns, or categories—that represent actual things in the real world. It then uses these concepts or patterns that it has already built when it meets a new object or event, and it can then compare the new object to the concept it has already stored.
Elements of cognition
Cognition includes several elements or processes that all work to describe how our knowledge is built up and our judgments are made. Among these many elements are the processes of perceiving, recognizing, conceptualizing, learning, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and language. Some of these processes may include others (for example, problem solving might be considered to be part of reasoning).
Words to Know
Cognitive psychology: School of psychology that focuses on how people perceive, store, and interpret information through such thought processes as memory, language, and problem solving.
Language: The use by humans of voice sounds and written symbols representing those sounds in organized combinations to express and to communicate thoughts and feelings.
Learning: Thorough knowledge or skill gained by study.
Memory: The power or ability of remembering past experiences.
Perception: The ability, act, or process of becoming aware of one's surrounding environment through the senses.
Reasoning: The drawing of conclusions and judgments through the use of reason.
Perception. Perception or perceiving refers to the information we get from our five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Studies have shown that our human senses perceive or take in far more information or data than our nervous systems can ever process or pay attention to. We get around this by organizing this data into chunks or groups, so that when we see a new object (such as a new type of car), we automatically compare it against the vast number of patterns or concepts we already have stored in our brains. When we find that it matches a concept—since we probably already have a general idea of what "carness" is, for example—we do not have to then process every little bit of detailed information about this new car to know that it is a car (that is, in order to perceive it or recognize and understand it as a car). At the end of this process, we have made a judgment of some sort about this new thing. Once scientists discovered this aspect of perception, they were better able to explain how people often see what they expect to see and are sometimes in fact mistaken. This happens when we take only that first, matching impression of something and conclude that it is correct (that is, that the reality is the same as the idea of it we have in our minds) without taking the time to check out all the details of a thing. However, this ability to conceptualize or to create concepts in our minds is very important and is one of the key functions or processes of cognition or knowing.
Reasoning and problem solving. Reasoning could be described as the process by which people systematically develop different arguments and, after consideration, arrive at a conclusion by choosing one. Like reasoning, problem solving also involves comparing things, but it is always aimed at coming to some sort of a solution. We usually do this by creating models of the problem in our minds and then comparing and judging the possible solutions. One thing we know about reasoning and problem solving is that it is usually much more difficult for people to do when it remains in the abstract. In other words, most people can more easily solve a problem if it is concrete than if it remains abstract. A common example given is the game "Rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, paper
covers rock." When stated abstractly (A breaks B, B cuts C, and C covers A), we can easily become confused.
Learning. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) spent a lifetime studying how children learn, and he identified three stages that children go through as they grow and develop. In the first and simplest stage, an infant believes that an object is still where he or she first saw it, even though the infant had seen it moved to another place. In the second stage, the young child knows that it is at times separate from its environment
and has developed concepts for things whether he or she is presently involved with them or not. The final, more mature stage has the older child understanding how to use symbols for things (such as things having names) and developing the ability to speak and use those symbols in language.
Memory. Memory, or the ability to recall something that was learned, is another cognitive function that is very important to learning. Scientists usually divide it into short-term and long-term memory. Our short-term memory seems to have a limited capacity, is very much involved with our everyday speech, and appears very important to our identity or our sense of self (who we are). Long-term memory stores information for much longer periods of time and seems to show no limitations at all. The three basic processes common to both types of memory—encoding or putting information into memory, storage, and retrieval—are exactly those used in today's computers.
Language. Although many animals besides human beings have a brain, nervous system, and some cognitive functions (that is, they share in a way many of the same processes of cognition), the one function of cognition that sets humans apart from other animals is the ability to communicate through language. Humans are unique in that they can express concepts as words. Some say that it is through studying language that we will gain an understanding of how the mind works. We do know that we form sentences with our words that allows us to express not just a single concept but complex ideas, rules, and propositions.
Understanding cognition or figuring out the process involved in knowing is something science has only really just begun. However, the combined work of philosophers, psychologists, and other scientists using new technologies for studying the brain may result in the next great scientific breakthrough—the explanation of how the human brain carries out its mental task of knowing.
[See also Brain; Psychology ]
Cognition is a complex mental process whereby an individual gains knowledge and understanding of the world. While cognition cannot be neatly dissected into constitutive processes, psychologists point out that it reveals the interplay of such critical psychological mechanisms as perception , attention, memory , imagery, verbal function, judgment, problem-solving, decision-making, with the admixture of other factors, including physical health, educational background, socio-economic status, and cultural identity. A dynamic process, since both the world and the individual are subject to change, cognition is a vital function which enables an individual to exist in the world as an independent and active participant.
Before psychology existed as a scientific discipline, the study of cognition was the domain of philosophy. There are two fundamental scientific paradigms-with many variations-regarding cognition in Western philosophy: idealism and empiricism. According to idealistic view, represented by such thinkers as Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.) and René Descartes (1596-1650), innate ideas are the crucial component in cognition; in other words, knowledge is determined by what has been in an individ ual's mind since-or before-birth. The opposing, empiricist view, is succinctly expressed by John Locke's (1632-1704) dictum that, without sense-perceptions, the mind is an empty slate, a tabula rasa. While certain psychologists struggled to determine which of the two paradigms was dominant, the celebrated Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a theoretical model of cognition which recognized the importance of both the innate/genetic and the empirical components of cognition. It could be said that cognition depends on both components, just as the successful operation of a computer program requires both the hardware and the software.
How cognition works
Cognition starts with perception. Perception, which occurs in space and time , provides the general framework for cognition; perception is also the process of becoming aware of a stimulus , which can be external or internal. The next step is conceptualization: after realizing the existence of something, we try to figure out what it is: the percept becomes a concept. For example, cognition happens at the instance when the perception "something coming our way" crystallizes as the concept "dog." If the dog is unfriendly, we will use judgment to evaluate our newly acquired knowledge of the situation in an effort to avoid injury. Fortunately, while problem-solving is a key application of the power of judgment in everyday life, not all problems are unpleasant. Working on a mathematical problem, for instance, can be a pleasant, one could say esthetic, experience; the same could be said for any problems requiring creativity and ingenuity, abilities of a higher order than simpler methods, such as the trial-and-error approach. In the realm of the scientific imagination, cognition can, in rare moments, occur as an unexpected flash of illumination. The problem appears to solve itself. One such extraordinary experience is an often quoted mathematical discovery by the French mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré (1854-1912). Unable to fall asleep one night, Poincaré thought about a tough problem that he had been grappling with: "Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a new class of Fuchian functions."
Varieties of cognition
Poincaré's experience shows that cognition, while originally stemming from less complex psychological mechanisms, such as perception, is not literally tied to the world of sense-perception. Without contradicting the statement about perception providing the spatio-temporal context of cognition, we can say that cognition also operates in the seemingly unlimited expanses of imaginary space (as in art and mathematics ) and inner space (as in introspection). In addition, while cognition is traditionally defined as rational and conceptual, it can contain such non-intellectual components as feelings, intuitions, and physical acts. The process of learning to play a musical instrument, for example, although a rationally structured endeavor, contains many repetitive, mechanical operations that could be defined as elements of unconscious learning. When the source of new knowledge is unknown, when we do not know why we know something, we are probably dealing with the hidden, silent, non-conceptual dimensions of cognition. A new skill, insight, ability, or perspective suddenly appears "out of nowhere." But this "nowhere" is not really outside the realm of cognition. As in the case of perception, conceptual thinking provides a framework but does not limit cognition. While cognition is certainly limited by human biology , it has no limits of its own. Finally, cognition is also never complete; despite repeated attempts, throughout the history of thought, to create closed intellectual systems postulating absolute knowledge as a theoretical goal, the human mind-as evidenced, for example, by the tremendous development of science since the Scientific Revolution-inevitably finds a way to widen the horizons of knowledge. That cognition is an open-ended process is also demonstrated by the seemingly unlimited human capacity for learning, introspection, change, and adaptation to a changing world.
See also Brain.
Matlin, K.M. Cognition. 3d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994.
Morris, Charles G. Psychology: An Introduction. 7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Piaget, Jean. Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge. New York: Viking, 1971.
Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. Magnolia, MA: Peter Smith, 1983.
Sheldrake, Rupert. The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Random House, 1988.
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—A mental construct, based on experience, used to identify and separate classes of phenomena. The perceived distinctions between cats and dogs allow us to formulate the concepts "cat" and "dog."
—The ability to find solutions to problems and answers to questions without relying on established methods.
—A general philosophical position holding that all knowledge comes from experience, and that humans are not born with any ideas or concepts independent of personal experience.
—Scientific thinking based on the view that ultimate reality is immaterial.
—The ability to create alternate worlds without losing contact with reality.
—The ability to evaluate events and statements.
—The mental representation of a single perceived event or object.
- Scientific paradigm
—A general view shared by groups of scientists.
A general term for the higher mental processes by which people acquire knowledge, solve problems, and plan for the future.
Cognition depends on the ability to imagine or represent objects and events that are not physically present at a given moment. Cognitive functions include attention , perception , thinking, judging, decision making, problem solving, memory , and linguistic ability.
One of the most basic cognitive functions is the ability to conceptualize, or group individual items together as instances of a single concept or category, such as "apple" or "chair." Concepts provide the fundamental framework for thought, allowing people to relate most objects and events they encounter to preexisting categories. People learn concepts by building prototypes to which variations are added and by forming and testing hypotheses about which items belong to a particular category. Most thinking combines concepts in different forms. Examples of different forms concepts take include propositions (proposals or possibilities), mental models (visualizing the physical form an idea might take), schemas (diagrams or maps), scripts (scenarios), and images (physical models of the item). Other fundamental aspects of cognition are reasoning, the process by which people formulate arguments and arrive at conclusions, and problem solving—devising a useful representation of a problem and planning, executing, and evaluating a solution.
Memory—another cognitive function—is crucial to learning, communication, and even to one's sense of identity (as evidenced by the effects of amnesia ). Short-term memory provides the basis for one's working model of the world and makes possible most other mental functions; long-term memory stores information for longer periods of time. The three basic processes common to both short- and long-term memory are encoding, which deposits information in the memory; storage; and retrieval. Currently, the question of whether short- and long-term memory are qualitatively and biologically distinct is a matter of debate.
The cognitive function that most distinctively sets humans apart from other animals is the ability to communicate through language, which involves expressing propositions as sentences and understanding such expressions when we hear or read them. Language also enables the mind to communicate with itself. The interaction between language and thought has been a topic of much speculation. Of historical interest is the work of Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), the proponent of the idea that the language people use determines the way in which they view the world. As of the late 1990s, most psychologists view the Whorfian hypothesis with skepticism, believing that language and perception interact to influence one another.
Language acquisition is another topic of debate, with some—including psycholinguist Noam Chomsky —arguing that all humans have innate language abilities, while behaviorists stress the role of conditioning and social learning theorists stress the importance of imitation and reinforcement .
Since the 1950s, cognitive psychology , which focuses on the relationship between cognitive processes and behavior, has occupied a central place in psychological research. The cognitive psychologist studies human perceptions and the ways in which cognitive processes operate on them to produce responses. One of the foremost cognitive psychologists is Jerome Bruner , who has done important work on the ways in which needs, motivations, and expectations (or "mental sets") affect perception. In 1960, Bruner and his colleague, George A. Miller, established the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which was influential in the "cognitive revolution" of the following years. In the area of linguistics, the work of Noam Chomsky has rekindled the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Other well-known work in cognitive psychology includes that of D.E. Berlyne on curiosity and information seeking; George Kelly's theory of personal constructs; and investigations by Herman Witkin, Riley Gardner, and George Klein on individual perceptual and cognitive styles.
The development of the modern computer has influenced current ways of thinking about cognition through computer simulation of cognitive processes for research purposes and through the creation of information-processing models. These models portray cognition as a system that receives information, represents it with symbols, and then manipulates the representations in various ways. The senses transmit information from outside stimuli to the brain , which applies perceptual processes to interpret it and then decides how to respond to it. The information may simply be stored in the memory or it may be acted on. Acting on it usually affects a person's environment in some way, providing more feedback for the system to process. Major contributions in the area of information processing include D.E. Broadbent's information theory of attention, learning, and memory; and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram's analysis of planning and problem solving.
See also Artificial intelligence; Cognitive development
Anderson, John R. Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1985.
Ashcraft, Mark H. Human Memory and Cognition. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers, 1994.
Halpern, Diane F. Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1992.
The term cognitive fluidity refers to the capacity of the modern human mind to combine different ways of thinking with stores of knowledge to arrive at original thoughts, which are often highly creative and rely on metaphor and analogy. As such, cognitive fluidity is a key element of the human imagination. The term has been principally used to contrast the mind of modern humans, especially those after 50,000 B.P. (before present), with those of archaic humans such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. The latter appear to have had a mentality that was domain-specific in nature—a series of largely isolated cognitive domains for thinking about the social, material, and natural worlds. With the advent of modern humans the barriers between these domains appear to have been largely removed and hence cognition became more fluid.
See also Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Evolution, Human
mithen, steven. the prehistory of the mind: the cognitive origins of art, religion and science. london: thames & hudson, 1996.
cog·ni·tion / ˌkägˈnishən/ • n. the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. ∎ a result of this; a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition. DERIVATIVES: cog·ni·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.