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The term cognition (Latin, cogito: to think) 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 that culminate in both thought and action.


1 Cognition in mainstream psychology
1.1 Influence and influences
2 Cognitive ontology
3 Cognition as compression
4 Cognition as a social process
5 Cognition in a cultural context
5.1 Example of emergent organization
6 Summary
7 Related fields
8 See also
9 External links

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. And conversly, evolutionary-based perspectives can inform hypotheses about cognitive functional systems evolutionary psychology.

Unsolved problems in cognitive science: How much human intervention is needed to produce a cognition? (Nature versus nurture) What is the relationship of personhood to cognition? Why is it currently so much more difficult for a machine to recognize a human than for a cat to recognize its human owner? Why is the conceptual horizon wider for some than for others? Might there be a relationship between the speed of cognition and number of eyeballs? What is its form of such relationship?

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:

Computer science and information theory, where attempts at artificial intelligence, collective intelligence and robotics focus on mimicking living beings' capacities for cognition, or applying the experience gathered in one place by one being to actions by another being elsewhere.
Philosophy, epistemology and ontology
Moral philosophy where it deals with the problem of ignorance, often seen as the opposite of cognition.
Biology and neuroscience
Mathematics and probability
Physics, where observer effects are studied in depth mathematically.

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

Cognition in a cultural context

In multiple observations, some dating back to antiquity, language acquisition in human children, fails to emerge unless the children are exposed to language. Thus 'language acquisition' is an example of an 'emergent behavior', which in fact requires a narrow, yet evolutionarily reliably occurring, set of inputs. In this case, the individual is made up of a set of mechanisms 'expecting' such input form the social world.

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 feedback between the economic choice and the psychology of the activity. In social cognition, face perception in human babies emerges by the age of two months.

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.


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.

Related fields

See also