Cognition can be defined as the capacity to process information through the perception of all senses, knowledge accumulated through experience, and the personal attributes that enable us to integrate all information received to evaluate and interpret the world around us.
What Is Cognition?
Cognition, in psychology, is a term used to define how the brain processes information that is acquired through knowledge, understanding, and experience. The word cognition comes from the Latin word “cognoscere” which means “to know”. Human cognition can be defined as the ability to understand and process information that is perceived and acquired which is converted into knowledge and experience. It includes different types of cognitive processes such as learning, attention, memory, language, reasoning, decision making, or perception. In the case of social cognition, this term is used to explain attitudes, attribution, and group dynamics.
According to a 2015 study 1 , it refers to “the ability to learn, solve problems, remember, and appropriately use stored information,” and is considered as “a key to successful health and aging.” The cognitive process involves mentally gaining comprehension and expertise by utilizing senses, experience and thought. It involves a number of different mental functions like learning, using language, making decisions, using logic & reasoning, evaluation, memory, judgment and problem solving. It includes different conscious & unconscious states, processes and actions involved in gathering knowledge. Research 2 shows that cognitive processes involve elements of modular processing to create mechanisms that regulate “stimulus and response.” However, according to a 2015 study 3 , our cognitive abilities tend to decline as we age. The study suggests that our cognitive abilities are crucial for functional independence as we get older. It enables a person to care for themselves, perform regular functions and live independently. “In addition, intact cognition is vital for humans to communicate effectively, including processing and integrating sensory information and responding appropriately to others,” the study adds.
Cognitive psychology emerged in the late 1950s. Psychologists like Piaget and Vygotsky revolutionized the concept with their theories about development and cognitive learning. Piaget is known for studying cognitive development in children, having studied his own three children and their intellectual development. This contributed to the development of his concept “the theory of cognitive development” that describes the developmental stages of childhood. Vygotsky is known for his contribution to understanding cognitive biases. Over the decades’ interest in cognition and cognitive skills advanced and allowed researchers to learn more about how these processes work. Advancements in neuroimaging have helped to contribute to the physiological and neuroanatomical understanding of cognition.
Few people would deny that the cognitive process is a part of the brain function and cognitive theory will not necessarily make reference to the brain or to biological processes. Studies 4 were conducted on older humans to better understand the relation between the brain and cognition. Normal aging 5 results in the loss of brain tissue with markedly larger tissue loss found in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortices. Due to these cognitive functions, these brain regions 6 decay furthermore than any other aspects of cognition. However, it may purely be based on behavior in terms of information flow or function. The cognitive process mainly includes thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving.
Types Of Cognitive Processes
There are several types of processes that are involved in cognition. They include:
Attention can be defined as the ability to focus on one particular task at a time. Attention is a fundamental aspect of conducting daily activities. This is used in the majority of tasks we do every day. Attention is considered to be a mechanism that controls and regulates the rest of the cognitive processes. This involves the perception of the senses, learning, and complex reasoning. The impact of emerging technologies on various mental functions is limitless. One 2019 study 7 suggested that the use of digital technologies for learning is having a negative impact on our brains and our attention span.
Language is a communication form we use every day. Language involves reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Learning language involves the ability to comprehend and express oneself with spoken and written words. This cognitive function allows individuals to communicate and express their minds. This tool is used to communicate, organize, and transform information that we have about the world around us. There is a close connection between language and thought since they are both developed together. This connection tends to mutually influence each other. A study pointed out that many distinct domains of cognition exist and must be learned separately using different mental mechanisms, including language abilities.
Cognitive learning can be defined as a way of learning wherein the ulterior focus is on the effective use of the brain. This process aims to systemize the learning process through optimal thinking, understanding, and the retention capacity of the individual. Learning aims to inculcate new things, process information, integrate research with prior knowledge, and optimize the learning process. This can include things such as behaviors or habits like brushing teeth, learning how to walk, and the knowledge received through social interaction. A 2002 study 8 found that instructional methods can be incorporated into lesson design and improve learning by managing cognitive load in working memory. There are several benefits of cognitive learning. They are:
- Enhances learning
- Improves confidence
- Enhances comprehension
- Improves problem-solving skills
This process allows the ability to encode, store, and recover information received from the world around us and the past. One 2019 study 9 pointed out that memory is an essential component of the learning process that enables individuals to refer to the knowledge and experience received and utilize it in future decisions. Memory is a basic process for learning and acquiring new information. This function allows creating a sense of identity of the person.
Memory can be subdivided into short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory is the ability to retain information for a short period of time. For instance, attempting to remember a telephone number until we can write it down. Long term memory is the ability to store and retain information for a long period of time. It can be further divided into smaller groups that include declarative memory and procedural memory. Declarative memory constitutes the knowledge received through language and education, and the knowledge gained through personal experience. Procedural memory involves learning through routines. Other types of memory include auditory memory, contextual memory, naming, and recognition.
Perception allows people to engulf information through their senses and utilize it based on the circumstances and their interaction with the world around them. This type of cognition allows us to organize and understand the world through different senses like sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Most people rely on the five senses. However, other senses like proprioception i.e the stimuli which unconsciously perceive our position in space and judge spatial orientation, and interoception i.e the perception of the organs in our bodies. This enables us to know when you are hungry or thirsty. Once the brain receives the stimulation, it integrates all the information to create a memory.
Thought allows individuals to comprehend and develop their decision-making, problem-solving, reasoning skills and optimize them in the learning process. It refers to our ability to process and store information, hold attention and retrieve it as and when necessary. It allows us to integrate all of the information that we have received and is used to establish relationships between events and knowledge. In order to achieve this, it uses reasoning, synthesis, and problem-solving.
Why Cognition Is Important
The cognitive process affects almost every aspect of an individual’s life. The uses of cognition may be laid down as follows:
1. Learning things
Learning involves inculcating information, forming new memories, and building connections with the knowledge you already possess. Researchers and experts use their knowledge of what they learned and apply it to their studies. This enables them to create new instructions as a means to help other people learn new things.
2. Creating Memories
Cognition allows us to store information we have learned. Memory is one of the major aspects of the field of cognitive psychology. While memory may be considered in terms of videos or pictures or cataloging life events and storing them away to revisit later, research 10 has shown that memory is more complex than images or videos. The human brain stores information in its mind as a memory. The feelings associated with a particular event become a part of their memory. The information received may later be utilized in similar circumstances.
3. Decision Making
The decision-making process involves making judgments about the information received. It also may involve comparing information to prior knowledge, integration of new information into existing ideas and knowledge, or replacement of old information with new ones before passing a judgment.
Cognition And Aging
Cognitive abilities tend to decline as an individual ages. Cognitive decline is a condition characterized by a decline in cognitive functions related to thinking, memory, language, and judgment. Some cognitive abilities such as vocabulary are more resilient than others while others such as conceptual reasoning, memory, and processing speed may decline gradually with time. A 2010 study 11 pointed out that our ability to process information begins to decline in the third decade of life and continues to advance throughout the lifespan. This gradual decline can negatively impact the individual’s performance.
Memory issues are one of the most common signs of cognitive decline found in older adults. A 2003 study also suggested that decline occurs in memory retrieval, which refers to the ability to access newly learned information. The language abilities appear to remain intact as an individual ages. A 2009 study 12 found that vocabulary remains stable and even improves over time. However, it is also worth noting that some environmental factors 13 may also influence the development of an impaired cognitive function.
Read More About Aging Here
Cognition And Addiction
Clinical research 14 suggests that cues associated with substance use elicit psychological responses and cravings for drugs. Addiction is found to significantly impact different cognitive processes such as memory and language abilities, only when intoxicated. However, memory decline may persist if the individual has been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. One 2007 study 15 also found that acute effects of amphetamine, nicotine, and cocaine display acutely enhanced learning and attention. A 2008 study 16 confirmed that laboratory animals’ cognitive processes improve immediately following the administration of nicotine. In another 2007 study 17 cocaine produced similar effects in a study of rats that were treated with the drug and then exposed to a sensory stimulus. The animals exhibited enhanced neural activation when later re-exposed to the stimulus.
Drug abusers in the second stage of addiction are subject to withdrawal symptoms when they initiate abstinence. Many drugs produce cognition-related withdrawal symptoms that may make the process of abstinence challenge. These include:
- Cocaine 18 – deficits in cognitive flexibility
- Amphetamine 19 —deficits in attention and impulse control
- Opioids—deficits in cognitive flexibility
- Alcohol—deficits in working memory and attention
- Cannabis—deficits in cognitive flexibility and attention
- Nicotine —deficits in working memory and declarative learning
While cognitive deficits associated with withdrawal from drugs are temporary, long-term use can also lead to lasting cognitive decline.
Read More About Addiction Here
How To Improve Your Cognitive Skills
Cognitive processes are influenced by a variety of factors including genetics and experiences. It may not be possible to change your genetics, but there may be things you can do to maximize your cognitive abilities:
1. Healthy lifestyle choices
Having a healthy lifestyle that involves a healthy diet and regular exercise can help advance your cognitive functioning. A 2018 study 20 evaluated phytoestrogen, blueberry supplementation and antioxidants displayed minor increases in cognitive function after the supplementation as compared to before.
2. Thinking critically
Thinking critically involves questioning your assumptions and asking questions about your thoughts, beliefs, and how you arrive at decisions.
3. Staying curious and keep learning
Learning has no limit and hence enhancing your learning skills and staying curious can go a long way in maximizing your cognition.
4. Avoid multitasking
Multitasking may feel like you are getting things done faster in less time, research 21 indicates that it actually reduces productivity and quality of work.
Pitfalls In Cognition
It is essential to keep in mind cognition is a complicated process and is often imperfect. Some of the pitfalls that can influence an individual’s cognition include:
1. Attention problems
There are a number of things that can make it difficult for an individual to focus on everything that is present in the environment but attention is a limited resource. For instance, attentional blink tends to happen when you are extremely focused on one thing you completely miss something else that may be happening right in front of you.
2. Memory limitations
There are several memory limitations that an individual may possess. Studies 22 have shown that short-term memory is surprisingly brief and usually lasts between 20 to 30 seconds. On the other hand, a 2011 study pointed out that long term memory is more stable and enduring and can last for years and even decades. Memory can also be fragile and fallible. In some cases, a 2012 study pointed out that we tend to forget while in others we are subject to misinformation effects that may even lead to the formation of false memories.
3. Cognitive Biases
Cognitive Bias is the error in reasoning that occurs when an individual misinterprets information about the world around them which influences their decision-making abilities. One common example of this is the confirmation bias that involves the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms the individual’s beliefs while ignoring all the others associated with it. A scientific study 23 suggested that confirmation bias operates by the conscious or unconscious assimilation of evidence that is consistent with one’s assumptions and rejecting any contrary evidence associated with it.
Read More About Cognitive Biases Here
Advances In Cognition
A 2011 study 24 reported there have been several advances in cognitive neurosciences over the past two decades that are aided by technological innovations in several modalities of brain imaging as well as increased sophistication in computation and cognitive psychology. This advance has inspired psychopharmacologists and biological psychiatrists to characterize the properties of candidate cognition modifying compounds, beneficial or otherwise. The advances in cognition have allowed researchers to learn how to maximize their cognitive abilities in conducting their daily tasks.
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