Cognition refers, quite simply, to thinking. There are the obvious applications of conscious reasoning—doing taxes, playing chess, deconstructing Macbeth—but thought takes many subtler forms, such as interpreting sensory input, guiding physical actions, and empathizing with others.
The old metaphor for human cognition was the computer—a logical information-processing machine. You can’t spell cognition without the “cog.” Yet while some of our thoughts may be binary, there's a lot more to our “wetware” than 0's and 1's. Psychological research on cognition focuses not just on thinking, but also on attention, the creation and storage of memories, knowledge acquisition and retention, language learning, and logical reasoning. As people gain new experiences, their cognition can change in subtle but powerful ways.
The greatest divide between humans and all other animals resides in our higher-order mental processes. Much of cognition-related research has focused on the broad areas of reasoning and decision-making—including how people apply logic, think through problems, and make choices large and small.
One prominent area of research, for example, was popularized by noted psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and focuses on the distinction between “fast” and “slow” thinking. Fast thinking is intuitive, automatic, and nearly impossible to switch off, relying on heuristic processes to come to a “good enough” decision. By contrast, slow thinking takes a great deal of time and energy analyzing all available data before reaching a conclusion.
Other areas of interest include cognitive biases, such as humans’ tendency to engage in stereotyping and self-serving biases (believing that one is above average on many traits). Isolating and understanding these biases, most of which occur unconsciously, is thought to help people think more objectively.
The brain processes information using a vast web of brain cells called neurons. Information is detected by and encoded in various neurons, which communicate with each other via electrical signals and chemicals called neurotransmitters. That communication between neurons forms the basis of what we experience as thought.
Common examples of cognitive biases include confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for information that supports what one already believes, and anchoring bias, in which someone gives undue weight to the first piece of information they receive, even if it’s incorrect or incomplete.
For more common cognitive biases, see Bias.
Research suggests that how one thinks is influenced by the culture in which one lives. People in Western cultures, for example, tend to focus on the attributes of individual objects or ideas and consider parts of a problem separately from the whole; people in Eastern cultures, by contrast, may be more likely to focus on the broader context and the relationships between objects or ideas.
Decision-making can be complicated by external factors such as incomplete information or an urgent deadline. It may also be hindered by internal processes—such as anxiety about making the “wrong” decision or feeling overwhelmed by an excessive number of choices. Evidence also suggests that when two choices promise relatively similar outcomes, it takes longer to determine which one is “best” than it does to distinguish between vastly dissimilar options.
To learn more, see Decision-Making.
Psychological research suggests that a few simple strategies could lead to better decision-making. These include making the decision when rested and minimally stressed; taking time to think through complicated decisions, rather than acting on impulse; gathering necessary facts; and creating “rules” to help guide decisions that occur frequently.
Learning—or the process of taking in new information and acquiring new behaviors and skills—is a key component of cognition. Humans are far from the only species that learns, but our advanced cognitive skills mean that we are able to learn more complex tasks, and grapple with more complex ideas, than most other known life forms. While some learning happens automatically and without conscious thought—learning not to touch a hot stove after one is burned, for instance—other kinds of learning require deliberate practice in order for the information to stick.
When the brain processes new information, new connections form between neurons. If that information is reinforced via repeated practice, these connections grow stronger and can communicate more efficiently; if it isn’t, the connections weaken and may be pruned away. Learning, therefore, literally rewires the brain, creating new links in the vast network of neurons.
Learning occurs via a number of pathways, such as association—if two stimuli are repeatedly paired together, a person or animal will learn that they go together and shift their behavior or expectations accordingly. Learning also happens via socialization; children, for example, learn what behavior is appropriate by observing and modeling the behavior of adults and other children. Human children, along with many other animals, also learn via play, which teaches them how to cooperate, share, follow rules, and think creatively.
The brain is plastic, meaning that it grows and changes over time; learning is a key driver of those changes. In response to new information and stimulating experiences, the brain generates new dendritic spines, which store memories and facilitate improved connections between nerve cells. When stimulation is lacking or information is no longer needed, the same spines may wither and connections between synapses weaken.
Studies show that breaking learning into brief, spread-out chunks is typically more effective than trying to cram the same amount into one longer session. Prioritizing sleep is also essential for effective learning, as sleep helps the brain consolidate short-term memories into long-term ones and prune away irrelevant information.
Memory and learning are closely intertwined. After a fact, concept, or physical skill is learned, it must be stored in one’s memory in order to be recalled or applied later on. Working memory—or the short-term storage of information that is being mentally manipulated—is especially essential for learning new concepts and solving problems.
Metacognition is the act of thinking about one’s own mental processes. Metacognitive awareness allows people to identify, monitor, and uproot negative self-talk and self-limiting beliefs, and to be efficient in goal-setting and task execution. Thinking about and challenging one’s own thinking is at the heart of many types of therapy, including CBT.
Evaluating one’s thinking style or problem-solving processes may help someone identify cognitive biases that are interfering with their decision-making. Metacognition may also help them identify areas where their knowledge or comprehension is lacking.
Thinking aloud is thought to be related to metacognition, as it verbalizes and thus brings attention to an individual’s thought process. Some evidence suggests that articulating one’s thoughts out loud can improve concentration in certain high-pressure situations, such as during a competition.
Metacognitive therapy is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that examines patients’ metacognitive beliefs about how their minds work and aims to change those that foster counterproductive thought habits. It is generally a time-limited approach. Evidence suggests that it may be most helpful for treating anxiety and depression.