Cognition refers to the mental processes by which people acquire knowledge, solve problems, and plan for the future.
Simply put, cognition is the process of thinking. Cognitive functions in the brain include attention, perception, thinking, judging, decision making, problem solving, memory, and linguistic ability. Cognition depends on the ability to imagine or represent objects and events that are not physically present at a given moment.
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 are abstract ideas that provide the basic framework for thought, allowing people to relate most objects and events they encounter to categories that already exist in their minds from knowledge or past experiences.
People learn concepts by gradually building on their first ideas and adding to or altering those ideas. When a person uses cognitive reasoning, he or she forms and tests theories about ideas and categories. 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). Reasoning is the process by which people formulate arguments and arrive at conclusions, and problem solving involves devising a useful description of a problem in one's mind 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 each individual's working model of the world and makes possible most other mental functions; long-term memory stores information for longer periods of time. A newer concept called working memory refers to how the brain controls the information it receives so that people can store and recall the information as needed. The three basic processes common to both short-and longterm memory are encoding, which deposits information in the memory; storage; and retrieval. Each of these types of memory are affected differently, and research continues to study how each type is encoded, stored, and retrieved in the brain. Scientists know that with age, short-term memory, such as the name of a person recently met, typically does not work as well as long-term memory.
The cognitive function that most distinctively sets humans apart from other animals is the ability to communicate through language, which involves expressing ideas 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 2015, there are differing views on whether the Whorfian hypothesis is valid, and only some research to support it. Still, language and culture likely are linked. More importantly, language and cognition are related in an individual's thinking, not just in how the person communicates those thoughts.
Language acquisition is another topic of debate, with some—including psycholinguist Noam Chomsky (1928–)—arguing that all humans have innate language abilities, though others stress the role of conditioning and social learning theories that emphasize imitation, repetition, or typical learning methods.
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. IBM Research is an example of cognitive computing. The company famously developed a computer with artificial intelligence named “Watson” that defeated two former champions of the television game show Jeopardy.
See also Artificial intelligence ; Cognitive development .
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American Academy of Neurology and American Brain Foundation, 201 Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 55415, (612) 928-6000, (800) 879-1960, http://www.americanbrainfoundation.org/ .