What Is The Definition Of Cognition In Psychology?

By: Joy Youell

Updated May 19, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Audrey Kelly, LMFT

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The way that someone thinks can greatly influence the way they behave. Thought patterns make a difference in mental health. Understanding the components of mental health can be an important step toward finding peace of mind and wellness. This article discusses the way your thought life impacts mental health and how it can be addressed through counseling.

What is Cognition?

What do you think of when you hear the word "cognition"? It is not a word that comes up in everyday conversation, but the term may conjure up thoughts of how we as humans think. It is likely that, unless you are taking some psychology classes, you will rarely encounter the word cognition. As all of us pursue mental wellness, understanding the individual elements that contribute to our holistic well-being can be important. This article addresses the question of how cognition is defined in psychological circles. How might we define it, both technically and simply, and what are its components?

Technical Definition

According to the American Psychological Association (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.

Simple Definition

Psychology Today offers an alternative definition of cognition by stating, "Quite simply, cognition refers to thinking." Cognition generally refers to the processes of thinking and knowing. But what exactly are thinking and knowing? And how do they relate to attention, memory, and reasoning?

Thinking

We all think, but if someone were to ask you what thinking is, it might not be easy 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.

Knowledge

"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 consider 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, 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. 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?"

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How we choose to define the term depends on how technical and detailed we would like to be. Cognition is related to thinking and knowledge. Knowledge is built through attention.

Attention

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 convey to us if our awareness is focused on a conversation with the individual that is sitting next to us. 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 regular 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."

The inattention associated with ADHD can illustrate attention as the opposite, 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.

Memory

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. 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. Reasoning is another facet of cognition that can be impacted by or impact mental health.

Reasoning

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reasoning as the ability form an opinion or reach a conclusion through gathered information. Another definition is 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."

Through reasoning, we construct knowledge. Essentially, reasoning is the process of building a knowledge base. 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
  • Reasoning

Cognition is how we process, store and utilize information about everything from the way we brew our morning coffee to how the universe works.

Treating Cognitive Issues

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Some mental health issues or diseases are directly tied to impaired cognition. In scenarios where an individual finds themselves struggling to understand or think through things, a mental health professional can help illuminate the underlying causes of cognitive issues. There are a variety of approaches that can be taken in counseling, including:

  • Nutrition counseling to adjust diet
  • Physical therapy to address health
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

These and multiple other resources are available to help people overcome mild cognitive disorders.

BetterHelp is a network of qualified counselors that you can meet with online. At the convenience of your schedule and in your own home, a licensed therapist can provide you with support if you are struggling with cognitive, emotional, behavioral or other mental health issues. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing different issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Mark has been extremely attentive to everything that I disclose. He's not only provided me support but insight and encouragement to let me know I'm on a good path to self improvement and discovery. Furthermore, Mark has provided me valuable insight on my romantic relationship, specifically with learning more about the relationship dynamics and how to build a stronger, healthier relationship."

"I put off finding a therapist for a long time. I dreaded my first conversation with Neil and all the awkward, clunky explanations I'd have to give about my depression and anxiety. All of the things that felt like dirty little secrets that caused me so much pain. But I was so pleasantly surprised by the way Neil accurately picked up on what I was saying and gave me more insight into how my brain was working. It made my issue feel so much less of a personal problem and more of a universal problem we could examine together. He always gives me a thoughtful response within a day or two any time I send a message. I actually think we've made more progress in between sessions just by being able to communicate things that are coming up in real time. Neil is intelligent and kind. I really appreciate his communication style and highly recommend him."

Conclusion

Understanding how we think and form knowledge can help us in our lives and relationships. It can also help us to recognize when we are having problems 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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