The term cognition is used in several different loosely related ways. In psychology it is used to refer to the mental processeses 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.

Cognition is also an international journal publishing theoretical and experimental papers on the study of the mind. External link to journal homepage.

Table of contents
1 Cognition in mainstream psychology
2 Cognitive ontology
3 Cognition as compression
4 Cognition as a social process
5 Cognition in an organisational context
6 Cognition in a cultural context
7 Summary
8 See also

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 proceses 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.

Empirical research into cognition is usually scientific and quantitative, or involves creating models to decsribe or explain certain behaviours.

Whilst 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.

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:

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 linguisticallyally-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 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. 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

In multiple observations, some dating back to antiquity, language acquisition in human children, fails to emerge unless the children are spoken to. Thus 'language acquisition' is an example of an 'emergent behavior', which in fact requires a group. In this case, the individuals form coalitions in order to enable the emergent behavior.

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 obvious feedback between the economic choice and the psychology of the activity, and philosophy of rationalizations proposed.

Cognition in an organisational context

Many people no longer have to worry about the basic needs such as safety, food and shelter, but now need only worry about their jobs and relationships. This specialization occurred after the development of market economies in which price is a solution for selecting preferences for large numbers of people, simultaneously. An increase in safety occurred from the ability to lessen the risk of loss with insurance, which resulted from spreading the cost over a large number of people.

At this level, an 'emergent behavior' might be identified with coping with the effects of industrialization, together with a specialization, where an individual can cooperate with another.

Cognition in a cultural context

One famous image taken during the first Apollo mission to the Moon, Earthrise, which shows planet Earth in a single photograph, 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 telescopess 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 can be modelled as societies which cooperate to form concepts. The autonomous elements of each 'society' would have the opportunity to demonstrate emergent behavior.

See also