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7.1 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

   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. The infinite amount of sub-routines we organize every day to make up larger behaviors such as driving, operating machinery, participating in sports or even holding conversations (all relatively new behaviors in terms of the evolution of a species) go unnoticed but together allow us to navigate our environment safely and efficiently. There are facets to the multitude of complex processes involved in human cognition and what we understand about animal thought processes. 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).


Although discussions and descriptions of thought processes date back millennia to societies such as the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Maya, the formal scientific study of cognition is relatively new, growing out of philosophical debates including Rene Descartes’ 16th century argument suggesting humans are born with innate knowledge and the that the mind and body reflect two different entities.  This theory was known as substance dualism. From Descartes’ theories in the 16th century, major debates formed on whether human thought is created solely through the stimulation of our sense organs (empiricism) or whether we are born with innate knowledge which allows us to form language and maintain conscious experience (nativism). Supporters of empiricist views included philosophers such as George Berkeley, an Irish bishop who denied the existence of material substance, suggesting instead that the objects we interact with are only ideas in the minds of the perceivers, and John Locke, an English philosopher who founded the study of theory of mind which lead to modern conceptions of identity and the self.  Supporters of nativism included Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who argued that the human mind creates the structure of human experience and that the world (as it is) is independent of humanity’s perception of it. These arguments in philosophy would later lead to important advancements in the 19th century by Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke. Paul Broca, a French physician, anatomist, and anthropologist treated a patient now known as “Tan”, who with the exception of some curse words, could only create the utterance “tan” when he tried to speak. After the patient died, Dr. Broca inspected his brain and discovered that a specific area of the lateral frontal cortex (now known as “Broca’s area“) was damaged. He concluded that Broca’s areas was an important processing center for language production. Shortly after Broca’s publication documenting language deficits related to damage in the lateral frontal cortex, the German physician, psychiatrist, and anatomist, Carl Wernicke, noticed that not all language deficits were related to damage to Broca’s area. Wernicke found that damage to the left posterior and superior temporal gyrus resulted in deficits in language comprehension as opposed to language production. This area of the brain is what we now refer to as Wernicke’s area and these two findings together provided important evidence for theories related to functional localization within the brain, a theory separate from previous ideas related to the study of phrenology.

Around the turn of the 20th century, experimental research conducted in the experimental labs of Wilhelm Wundt and Ernst Weber in German, and Charles Bell in Britain, lead to the experimental study of behavior.  Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect (1898) described how behavior can be shaped by conditions and patterns of reinforcement. Theories in behaviorism were popular until the 1920s, when Jean Piaget began studying thoughts, language, and intelligence as well as how these capabilities change over the course of human development and aging. While WWII was taking the lives of millions of humans across the globe, psychology searched for new and innovative ways of studying human performance in order to address questions such as how to best train soldiers to use new technology, and how attention might be affected by stress. This research eventually lead to Claude Shannon’s developments in information theory in 1948, which described the quantification, storage, and communication of information. Developments in computer science soon led to parallels between human thought processes and computer information processing.  Newell and Simon’s development of artificial intelligence (AI) described both advanced capabilities in computing and descriptive models of cognitive processes. In responses to behaviorists’ criticisms of analyzing and modeling thought processes, Noam Chompsky argued against B.F. Skinner’s views that language is learned through reinforcement, suggesting that Skinner ignored the human creativity found in linguistics. Within the same decade George Miller published research describing humans’ ability to maintain information while performing secondary tasks (Miller, 1956) and founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies. Soon after, the first Cognitive Psychology textbook was published in 1967 by Ulrich Neisser (1967), a former student of George Miller.  Neisser was influenced by Gestalt psychologists, Wolfgang Kohler and Hans Wallach, as well as MIT computer scientist Oliver Selfridge. Neisser’s definition of the new term “cognition” illustrates the then progressive concept of cognitive processes as:

“all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations. . . Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon. But although cognitive psychology is concerned with all human activity rather than some fraction of it, the concern is from a particular point of view. Other viewpoints are equally legitimate and necessary. Dynamic psychology, which begins with motives rather than with sensory input, is a case in point. Instead of asking how a man’s actions and experiences result from what he saw, remembered, or believed, the dynamic psychologist asks how they follow from the subject’s goals, needs, or instincts.” (page 4 of Neisser’s 1967 publication of Cognitive Psychology)


   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. For example, many decisions we make about choosing to do something or refraining from doing something involve cognitive processes related to weighing options and making comparisons to other events in memory. However, cognition has been argued to not be involved in all the actions we make, such as reflexes that recoil your hand after touching an extremely hot surface, which operate on automatic feedback loops between the effector and spinal cord. Cognition is described in the Oxford dictionary as the mental actions or processes involved in acquiring, maintaining and understanding knowledge through thought, experience and the senses (definition of Cognition from the English Oxford Dictionary, 2018), and is described by Licht, Hull and Ballantyne (2014) as the mental activity associated with obtaining, converting and using knowledgeIt is important to recognize that although the term Cognition is an umbrella term that encompasses many different mental processes, similarities exist between how groups define cognition by defining it as a variety of mental processes that allow us to maintain, understand and use information to create knowledge and reflect upon it. Within the pieces that make up cognition, a main component is what is commonly referred to as thinking, which Matlin (2009) has defined as coming  to a decision, reaching a solution, forming a belief, or developing an attitude. Again, we see that even a subcomponent of cognition, such as thinking, still represents somewhat of an umbrella term which can be broken up into groups of processes and procedures that make up our thinking. Definitions are not universally accepted, and some groups within psychology consider cognition and thinking as the same group of processes. However, we will use the definitions provided above for the sake of simplicity.

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. Basically, cognitive scientists work to define the smallest components of what make up broader topics in cognition in order to continue improving working definitions of how we conceptualize human cognition. Many techniques have been discovered that allow psychologists to selectively evaluate and compare different components of cognition. Modern advancements in technology have allowed psychologist to use these methods to collect various forms of cognitive data such as basic measurements of reaction times and response accuracies to more advance techniques of physiological responses, such as eye tracking, electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnet encephalography (MEG), and positron emission tomography. Cognitive scientists work to create experimental designs using these methods, generate new findings, publish their work and add to the world-wide discussion of how various cognitive processes work and what makes our life experience similar or different from other species.


   The human nervous system is capable of handling endless streams of information, as emphasized in the sensation and perception chapter. 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, which are held in working memory, later 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 brain pulls information from emotions and memories (figure below). Emotion and memory are powerful influences on both our thoughts and behaviors.


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 person’s brain would be. An arrow from this second box points to a third box containing “Thoughts” behind the head. 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 brain 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 (you will learn more about semantic memory in a later chapter) 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 United States history, for example, you learn about more than just individual events that have happened in America’s 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 American 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.


Concepts can be understood by considering how they can be organized into hierarchies. At the top are superordinate concepts. This is the broadest category which encompasses all the objects belonging to a concept. The subordinate concept of “furniture” covers everything from couches to nightstands. If we were to narrow our focus to include only couches, we are considering the midlevel or basic level of the hierarchy. This is still a fairly broad category, but not quite as broad as the superordinate concept of furniture. The midlevel category is what we use most often in everyday life to identify objects. Sub-ordinate concepts are even narrower, referring to specific types. To continue with our example, this would include loveseat, a La-Z-Boy, or sectional.

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, for the category of civil disobedience, your prototype could be Rosa Parks. Her peaceful resistance to segregation on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, is a recognizable example of civil disobedience. Or your prototype could be Mohandas Gandhi, sometimes called Mahatma Gandhi (“Mahatma” is an honorific title).


A photograph of Mohandas Gandhi is shown. There are several people walking with him.

In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi led a group in peaceful protest against a British tax on salt in India.

Mohandas Gandhi served as a nonviolent force for independence for India while simultaneously demanding that Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian leaders—both Indian and British—collaborate peacefully. Although he was not always successful in preventing violence around him, his life provides a steadfast example of the civil disobedience prototype (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2013). Just as concepts can be abstract or concrete, we can make a distinction between concepts that are functions of our direct experience with the world and those that are more artificial in nature.


    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 Essex Junction, Vermont, 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 shoveled 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 or experiences of snow.


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. (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.


A 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 himself 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 him. 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, he just works 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 behaviors that can feel like a routine. Think about what you do when you walk into an elevator. 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 the United States, 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.

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 behavior 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).


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.

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 behavior 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.


   In this section, you were introduced to cognitive psychology, which is the study of cognition, or the brain’s ability to think, perceive, plan, analyze, and remember. Concepts and their corresponding prototypes help us quickly organize our thinking by creating categories into which we can sort new information. We also develop schemata, which are clusters of related concepts. Some schemata involve routines of thought and behavior, and these help us function properly in various situations without having to “think twice” about them. Schemata show up in social situations and routines of daily behavior.



Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology




Review Questions:

1. Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on the study of ________.

a. human development

b. human thinking

c. human behavior

d. human society


2. Which of the following is an example of a prototype for the concept of leadership on an athletic team?

a. the equipment manager

b. the scorekeeper

c. the team captain

d. the quietest member of the team


3. Which of the following is an example of an artificial concept?

a. mammals

b. a triangle’s area

c. gemstones

d. teachers


4. An event schema is also known as a cognitive ________.

a. stereotype

b. concept

c. script

d. prototype


Critical Thinking Questions:

1. Describe an event schema that you would notice at a sporting event.

2. Explain why event schemata have so much power over human behavior.


Personal Application Question:

1. Describe a natural concept that you know fully but that would be difficult for someone else to understand and explain why it would be difficult.



artificial concept


cognitive psychology


cognitive script

event schema

natural concept


role schema



Answers to Exercises

Review Questions:

1. B

2. C

3. B

4. C


Critical Thinking Questions:

1. Answers will vary. When attending a basketball game, it is typical to support your team by wearing the team colors and sitting behind their bench.

2. Event schemata are rooted in the social fabric of our communities. We expect people to behave in certain ways in certain types of situations, and we hold ourselves to the same social standards. It is uncomfortable to go against an event schema—it feels almost like we are breaking the rules.



artificial concept: concept that is defined by a very specific set of characteristics

cognition: thinking, including perception, learning, problem solving, judgment, and memory

cognitive psychology: field of psychology dedicated to studying every aspect of how people think

concept: category or grouping of linguistic information, objects, ideas, or life experiences

cognitive script: set of behaviors that are performed the same way each time; also referred to as an event schema

event schema: set of behaviors that are performed the same way each time; also referred to as a cognitive script

natural concept: mental groupings that are created “naturally” through your experiences

prototype: best representation of a concept

role schema: set of expectations that define the behaviors of a person occupying a particular role

schema: (plural = schemata) mental construct consisting of a cluster or collection of related concepts