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61 What is Cognition?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe cognition
  • Distinguish concepts and prototypes
  • Explain the difference between natural and artificial concepts
  • Describe how schemata are organized and constructed

Imagine all of your thoughts as if they were physical entities, swirling rapidly inside your mind. How is it possible that the brain is able to move from one thought to the next in an organized, orderly fashion? The brain is endlessly perceiving, processing, planning, organizing, and remembering—it is always active. Yet, you don’t notice most of your brain’s activity as you move throughout your daily routine. This is only one facet of the complex processes involved in cognition. Simply put, cognition is thinking, and it encompasses the processes associated with perception, knowledge, problem solving, judgment, language, and memory. Scientists who study cognition are searching for ways to understand how we integrate, organize, and utilize our conscious cognitive experiences without being aware of all of the unconscious work that our brains are doing (for example, Kahneman, 2011).

Cognition

Upon waking each morning, you begin thinking—contemplating the tasks that you must complete that day. In what order should you run your errands? Should you go to the bank, the cleaners, or the grocery store first? Can you get these things done before you head to class or will they need to wait until school is done? These thoughts are one example of cognition at work. Exceptionally complex, cognition is an essential feature of human consciousness, yet not all aspects of cognition are consciously experienced.

Cognitive psychology is the field of psychology dedicated to examining how people think. It attempts to explain how and why we think the way we do by studying the interactions among human thinking, emotion, creativity, language, and problem solving, in addition to other cognitive processes. Cognitive psychologists strive to determine and measure different types of intelligence, why some people are better at problem solving than others, and how emotional intelligence affects success in the workplace, among countless other topics. They also sometimes focus on how we organize thoughts and information gathered from our environments into meaningful categories of thought, which will be discussed later.

Concepts and Prototypes

The human nervous system is capable of handling endless streams of information. The senses serve as the interface between the mind and the external environment, receiving stimuli and translating it into nervous impulses that are transmitted to the brain. The brain then processes this information and uses the relevant pieces to create thoughts, which can then be expressed through language or stored in memory for future use. To make this process more complex, the brain does not gather information from external environments only. When thoughts are formed, the mind synthesizes information from emotions and memories (Figure LI.2). Emotion and memory are powerful influences on both our thoughts and behaviours.

The outline of a human head is shown. There is a box containing “Information, sensations” in front of the head. An arrow from this box points to another box containing “Emotions, memories” located where the front of the person's brain would be. An arrow from this second box points to a third box containing “Thoughts” located where the back of the person's brain would be. There are two arrows coming from “Thoughts.” One arrow points back to the second box, “Emotions, memories,” and the other arrow points to a fourth box, “Behavior.”

Figure LI.2 Sensations and information are received by our brains, filtered through emotions and memories, and processed to become thoughts.

In order to organize this staggering amount of information, the mind has developed a “file cabinet” of sorts in the mind. The different files stored in the file cabinet are called concepts. Concepts are categories or groupings of linguistic information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. Concepts are, in many ways, big ideas that are generated by observing details, and categorizing and combining these details into cognitive structures. You use concepts to see the relationships among the different elements of your experiences and to keep the information in your mind organized and accessible.

Concepts are informed by our semantic memory and are present in every aspect of our lives; however, one of the easiest places to notice concepts is inside a classroom, where they are discussed explicitly. When you study history, for example, you learn about more than just individual events that have happened in the past. You absorb a large quantity of information by listening to and participating in discussions, examining maps, and reading first-hand accounts of people’s lives. Your brain analyzes these details and develops an overall understanding of history. In the process, your brain gathers details that inform and refine your understanding of related concepts like democracy, power, and freedom.

Concepts can be complex and abstract, like justice, or more concrete, like types of birds. In psychology, for example, Piaget’s stages of development are abstract concepts. Some concepts, like tolerance, are agreed upon by many people, because they have been used in various ways over many years. Other concepts, like the characteristics of your ideal friend or your family’s birthday traditions, are personal and individualized. In this way, concepts touch every aspect of our lives, from our many daily routines to the guiding principles behind the way governments function.

Another technique used by your brain to organize information is the identification of prototypes for the concepts you have developed. A prototype is the best example or representation of a concept. For example, what comes to your mind when you think of a dog? Most likely your early experiences with dogs will shape what you imagine. If your first pet was a Golden Retriever, there is a good chance that this would be your prototype for the category of dogs.

Natural and Artificial Concepts

In psychology, concepts can be divided into two categories, natural and artificial. Natural concepts are created “naturally” through your experiences and can be developed from either direct or indirect experiences. For example, if you live in Northern Canada you have probably had a lot of direct experience with snow. You’ve watched it fall from the sky, you’ve seen lightly falling snow that barely covers the windshield of your car, and you’ve shovelled out 18 inches of fluffy white snow as you’ve thought, “This is perfect for skiing.” You’ve thrown snowballs at your best friend and gone sledding down the steepest hill in town. In short, you know snow. You know what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, and feels like. If, however, you’ve lived your whole life on the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, you may never have actually seen snow, much less tasted, smelled, or touched it. You know snow from the indirect experience of seeing pictures of falling snow—or from watching films that feature snow as part of the setting. Either way, snow is a natural concept because you can construct an understanding of it through direct observations, experiences with snow, or indirect knowledge (such as from films or books) (Figure LI.3).

Photograph A shows a snow covered landscape with the sun shining over it. Photograph B shows a sphere shaped object perched atop the corner of a cube shaped object. There is also a triangular object shown.

Figure LI.3 (a) Our concept of snow is an example of a natural concept—one that we understand through direct observation and experience. (b) In contrast, artificial concepts are ones that we know by a specific set of characteristics that they always exhibit, such as what defines different basic shapes. (credit a: modification of work by Maarten Takens; credit b: modification of work by “Shayan (USA)”/Flickr)

An artificial concept, on the other hand, is a concept that is defined by a specific set of characteristics. Various properties of geometric shapes, like squares and triangles, serve as useful examples of artificial concepts. A triangle always has three angles and three sides. A square always has four equal sides and four right angles. Mathematical formulas, like the equation for area (length × width) are artificial concepts defined by specific sets of characteristics that are always the same. Artificial concepts can enhance the understanding of a topic by building on one another. For example, before learning the concept of “area of a square” (and the formula to find it), you must understand what a square is. Once the concept of “area of a square” is understood, an understanding of area for other geometric shapes can be built upon the original understanding of area. The use of artificial concepts to define an idea is crucial to communicating with others and engaging in complex thought. According to Goldstone and Kersten (2003), concepts act as building blocks and can be connected in countless combinations to create complex thoughts.

Schemata

schema is a mental construct consisting of a cluster or collection of related concepts (Bartlett, 1932). There are many different types of schemata, and they all have one thing in common: schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently. When a schema is activated, the brain makes immediate assumptions about the person or object being observed.

There are several types of schemata. A role schema makes assumptions about how individuals in certain roles will behave (Callero, 1994). For example, imagine you meet someone who introduces themselves as a firefighter. When this happens, your brain automatically activates the “firefighter schema” and begins making assumptions that this person is brave, selfless, and community-oriented. Despite not knowing this person, already you have unknowingly made judgments about them. Schemata also help you fill in gaps in the information you receive from the world around you. While schemata allow for more efficient information processing, there can be problems with schemata, regardless of whether they are accurate: Perhaps this particular firefighter is not brave, they just work as a firefighter to pay the bills while studying to become a children’s librarian.

An event schema, also known as a cognitive script, is a set of behaviours that can feel like a routine. Think about what you do when you walk into an elevator (Figure LI.4). First, the doors open and you wait to let exiting passengers leave the elevator car. Then, you step into the elevator and turn around to face the doors, looking for the correct button to push. You never face the back of the elevator, do you? And when you’re riding in a crowded elevator and you can’t face the front, it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Interestingly, event schemata can vary widely among different cultures and countries. For example, while it is quite common for people to greet one another with a handshake in Canada, in Tibet, you greet someone by sticking your tongue out at them, and in Belize, you bump fists (Cairns Regional Council, n.d.)

A crowded elevator is shown. There are many people standing close to one another.

Figure LI.4 What event schema do you perform when riding in an elevator? (credit: “Gideon”/Flickr)

Because event schemata are automatic, they can be difficult to change. Imagine that you are driving home from work or school. This event schema involves getting in the car, shutting the door, and buckling your seatbelt before putting the key in the ignition. You might perform this script two or three times each day. As you drive home, you hear your phone’s ring tone. Typically, the event schema that occurs when you hear your phone ringing involves locating the phone and answering it or responding to your latest text message. So without thinking, you reach for your phone, which could be in your pocket, in your bag, or on the passenger seat of the car. This powerful event schema is informed by your pattern of behaviour and the pleasurable stimulation that a phone call or text message gives your brain. Because it is a schema, it is extremely challenging for us to stop reaching for the phone, even though we know that we endanger our own lives and the lives of others while we do it (Neyfakh, 2013) (Figure LI.5).

A person’s right hand is holding a cellular phone. The person is in the driver’s seat of an automobile while on the road.

Figure LI.5 Texting while driving is dangerous, but it is a difficult event schema for some people to resist.

Remember the elevator? It feels almost impossible to walk in and not face the door. Our powerful event schema dictates our behaviour in the elevator, and it is no different with our phones. Current research suggests that it is the habit, or event schema, of checking our phones in many different situations that makes refraining from checking them while driving especially difficult (Bayer & Campbell, 2012). Because texting and driving has become a dangerous epidemic in recent years, psychologists are looking at ways to help people interrupt the “phone schema” while driving. Event schemata like these are the reason why many habits are difficult to break once they have been acquired. As we continue to examine thinking, keep in mind how powerful the forces of concepts and schemata are to our understanding of the world.

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What is Cognition? by Edited by Leanne Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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