What Is The Definition Of Cognition In Psychology?

By Nadia Khan

Updated December 19, 2018

Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT

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What do you think of when you hear the word "cognition"? It is not exactly a word that comes up in everyday conversation, but the term may conjure up thoughts of how we as humans think, though probably not much more than that.

It is likely that, unless you are taking some psychology classes, you will rarely encounter the word cognition. Still, it may be useful to know what the term means, especially if you have an interest in any subject that might be related to psychology in some way.

There may be more than one way to define cognition, but regarding psychology, what is the actual definition of cognition? How might we define it, both technically and simply? And what are its components? And how might they be defined?


"Cognition modifies the knower to adapt him harmoniously to his acquired knowledge."

- Ludwik Fleck

How you define cognition depends how detailed you want your definition to be and which resources you choose to use. According to the American Psychological Association, or APA, cognition can be defined as the processes of knowing, including attending, remembering, and reasoning. It can also be defined as the content of these processes, such as concepts and memories.

However, if you are looking for something more simple and concise, Psychology Today offers an alternative definition of cognition by stating, "Quite simply, cognition refers to thinking." So, it is probably safe for us to say that we can think of cognition as generally referring to the processes of thinking and knowing. But what exactly are thinking and knowing? And how do they relate to attention, memory, and reasoning?


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"I think. Therefore I am." - René Descartes

We all think, but if someone were to ask you what thinking is, it might not be so easy for you to define it. Thinking is a process that constantly occurs in our minds, yet it is difficult to describe in any tangible way.

According to Scientific American, "When a single neuron fires, it is an isolated chemical blip. When many fires together, they form a thought." So, there is a biological process that can help to explain what a thought is from one perspective, but that only just begins to scratch the surface.

If you think of your mind as being like a computer, you might define thinking as the act of processing information, which seems like a more practical way of viewing the concept. That processed information, once held in mind, can be thought of as knowing, or knowledge. How then, though, do we define knowledge?


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"True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." - Socrates

We may think of knowledge as the information that is stored in our minds, but that is just one way of looking at the concept. We can go as far as thinking of knowledge as being the whole of human understanding that has been developed since the beginning of our collective existence, but that may be a little too broad for our purposes here.

If we continue to question what knowledge is, though, we may find ourselves stepping out of the realm of psychology and into the realm of philosophy. "In everyday usage, knowledge refers to awareness of or familiarity with various objects, events, ideas, or ways of doing things," according to Psychology Today. Beyond that, however, things tend to get a bit more complicated.

There is a term that is used to describe the study of knowledge. It is called epistemology. According to Stanford University,

As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?"

Again, how we choose to define the term depends on how technical and detailed we would like to be. However we choose to define knowledge, it all begins with attention.


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"The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." - Henry Miller

The process of building knowledge essentially begins with attention. We can think of attention as being the direction in which we focus our awareness. For example, if we are sitting in a class or a meeting, we may not take in any of the new knowledge that the facilitator may be trying so desperately to convey to us if our awareness is focused on a conversation with the individual that is sitting next to us. However, we may take in new knowledge about the individual that we are conversing with, but that is probably not where we should be directing our attention in that setting.

We likely do not think about attention on a daily basis. When we do think about it, we may find ourselves using the common phrase "pay attention," especially when working with children. But we most likely associate attention with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health,

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. Inattention means a person wanders off task, lacks persistence, has difficulty sustaining focus, and is disorganized.

In thinking about the inattention associated with ADHD, we can see attention as the opposite, as staying on task, maintaining persistence, sustaining focus, and staying organized. Developing the skill of being able to direct and focus our attention where it is needed is key to learning and building new knowledge. So is the act of storing that new information in our memory.


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"Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Memory is a key component of knowledge, and therefore cognition, in that it is how we store information. It is the medium through which we can build our knowledge. When we take in new information, we associate it with existing information and file it away for later use. Just like a computer, we cannot do that without memory.

It is likely that we do not think of our memory very often, except for maybe when we misplace our keys. However, if we have a family member who has dementia, we may find ourselves thinking about memory, or the lack thereof, quite often. According to the Alzheimer's Association, "Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life." Considering how the loss of memory can impact our lives can help us to gain some perspective on its importance.

In addition to memory loss, dementia is also marked by personality changes and impaired reasoning. But what exactly is reasoning?


"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual." - Galileo Galilei

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reasoning as having the ability to reason and defines the very reason as to form an opinion or reach a conclusion through reasoning and information. If you feel like we are going in circles here, you are not alone. After all, it is not very easy to accept a definition of a word when the word itself is used as part of its definition.

A better definition might be the one provided by the American Psychological Association which states that reasoning is "the process of thinking in which conclusions are drawn from a set of facts; thinking directed toward a given goal or objective." Though this is a better definition, it might be useful to think of a way to reword it to make the concept even easier to understand.

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The reasoning is like the construction of knowledge. Essentially, it is the process of building it. Simply stated, reasoning is how we process the information that we take in and form knowledge from it.

Cognition is a word that is used when we are talking about thinking, but it involves more than just that one component. It also involves knowing, attention, memory, and reasoning. It is how we process, store, and utilize information about everything from the way we brew our morning coffee so that it tastes just right to how the universe works.

Knowing a little about how we think and form knowledge can help us to increase our understanding of ourselves and each other. It can also help us to recognize when we are having problems in any one of these areas so that we know when we should reach out for help.

When we do reach out for help, we may choose to turn to a therapist like the ones that can be found at BetterHelp. They can help us to determine the source of the problems and find ways to cope. They can also help us to gain an even better understanding of what cognition is and how it relates to us as individuals, which can ultimately help us to live better lives. And who would not want to think about that?

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