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The term cognition is used in several different loosely related ways. In psychology it is used to refer to the mental processes of an individual, with particular relation to a view that argues that the mind has internal mental states (such as beliefs, desires and intentions) and can be understood in terms of information processing, especially when a lot of abstraction or concretization is involved, or processes such as involving knowledge, expertise or learning for example are at work. It is also used in a wider sense to mean the act of knowing or knowledge, and may be interpreted in a social or cultural sense to describe the emergent development of knowledge and concepts within a group.


Cognition in mainstream psychology

The sort of mental processes described as cognitive or cognitive processes are largely influenced by research which has successfully used this paradigm in the past. Consequently this description tends to apply to processes such as memory, 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 strategies and methods of cognition, known as metacognition.

Empirical research into cognition is usually scientific and quantitative, or involves creating models to describe or explain certain behaviours.

While few people would deny that cognitive processes are the responsibility of the brain, a cognitive theory will not necessarily make any reference to the brain or any other biological process (compare neurocognitive). It may purely describe behaviour 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 which 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.

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).

Influence and influences

This success has led to it being applied in a wide range of areas:

In its widest sense, the field is quite eclectic and draws from a number of areas, such as:

Cognitive ontology

On an individual being level, these questions are studied by the separate fields above, but are also more integrated into cognitive ontology of various kinds. This challenges the older linguistically-dependent views of ontology, wherein one could debate being, perceiving, and doing, with no cognizance of innate human limits, varying human lifeways, and loyalties that may let a being "know" something (see qualia) that for others remains very much in doubt.

On the level of an individual mind, an emergent behavior might be the formation of a new concept, 'bubbling up' from below the conscious level of the mind. A simple way of stating this is that beings preserve their own attention and are at every level concerned with avoiding interruption and distraction. Such cognitive specialization can be observed in particular in language, with adults markedly less able to hear or say distinctions made in languages to which they were not exposed in youth.

Cognition as compression

By the 1980s, researchers in the Engineering departments of the University of Leeds, UK hypothesized that 'Cognition is a form of compression', i.e., cognition was an economic, not just a philosophical or a psychological process; in other words, skill in the process of cognition confers a competitive advantage. An implication of this view is that choices about what to cognize are being made at all levels from the neurological expression up to species-wide priority setting; in other words, the compression process is a form of optimization. This is a force for self-organizing behavior; thus we have the opportunity to see samples of emergent behavior at each successive level, from individual, to groups of individuals, to formal organizations, to societies.

Cognition as a social process

In multiple observations, some dating back to antiquity, language acquisition in human children, fails to emerge unless the children are spoken to. Thus 'language acquisition' is an example of an 'emergent behavior', which in fact requires a group. In this case, the individuals form coalitions in order to enable the emergent behavior.

In education, for instance, which has the explicit task in society of developing child cognition, choices are made regarding the environment and permitted action that lead to a formed experience. This is in turn affected by the risk or cost of providing these, for instance, those associated with a playground or swimming pool or field trip. The macro-choices made by the political economy in effect will be extremely influential on the micro-choices made by the teachers or children. So at least on this level, there is obvious feedback between the economic choice and the psychology of the activity, and philosophy of rationalizations proposed.

In social cognition, face perception in human babies emerges by the age of two months.

Cognition in a cultural context

One famous image, Earthrise, taken during Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to the Moon, shows planet Earth in a single photograph. Earthrise is now the icon for Earth Day, which did not arise until after the image became widespread. At this level, an example of an 'emergent behavior' might be concern for Spaceship Earth, as encouraged by the development of orbiting space observatories etc.

Other concepts which seem to have arisen only recently (in the last century) include increased expectations for human rights. In this case, an example of an 'emergent behavior' might perhaps be the use of the mass media to publicize inequities in the human condition, perhaps using highly portable cameras and telephones.

Example of emergent organization

It is possible to find other examples of critical mass necessary to develop a concept. For example a nascent coalition of individuals might fail in the implementation of some agreement among them; but in the words of Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the Wiki-wiki Web:

I thought there would be failure modes, but I wasn't surprised that communities found ways around them. I thought it was important that when the organization proved to be wrong, people could reorganize on their own, that organization could emerge.

In other words, when the organization adapted, the concept adapted and survived the incipient failure mode.


Cognition is a diffuse term and is used in radically different ways by different disciplines. In psychology, it refers to an information processing view of an individual's psychological functions. Wider interpretations of the meaning of cognition link it to the development of concepts; individual minds, groups, organizations, and even larger coalitions of entities can be modelled as societies which cooperate to form concepts. The autonomous elements of each 'society' would have the opportunity to demonstrate emergent behavior in the face of some crisis or opportunity.

See also

External links

  • Cognition An international journal publishing theoretical and experimental papers on the study of the mind.

Last updated: 05-06-2005 10:38:13
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04