Cognition is mental action. It is the process of acquiring, processing and storing knowledge. The focus is on how we experience and understand ourselves and the world around us. Cognition includes attention, working memory, judgment, evaluation, reasoning, computation and thinking. It is very interested in decision making, comprehension, meaning extraction and mental structures.
Cognition is the process we use to understand, remember and communicate with others. We use it to solve crossword puzzles, decide which job to take and to set our life goals. Cognition is the general term for forming prototypes, concepts and images. We create this conceptual structures to simplify our thinking and make sense of the world.
As Aristotle pointed out, we tend to categorize things by similarity. We group objects, people and ideas by commonality. This makes it easy to process new information. We simply toss that input into one of the existing categorical buckets.
Although concepts speed up our thinking, they also limit it. Once we make a mental set, we are reluctant to change it. This “functional fixedness” limits our creativity. We know that hammers pound nails but are less likely to think of other objects that would serve the same function.
An extension of functional fixedness it what some refer to as Maslow’s hammer. It is based on Maslow’s statement that if you have a hammer you tend “to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This is broader constraint. It is a cognitive bias. Once we have categorized an object, event or person, we still with it. When we have limited experience with a particular ethnic group, we tend to think all of them are like the ones we’ve met. This leads us to generalizations and stereotypes, such as all nuns are mean, all Baptists are drunk or all Martians are snobs.
We are particularly influenced by vividness. We believe that vivid memories are more accurate than vague ones. One bias of our cognitive system, the availability heuristic, is that events that more mentally available are more likely to happen again. We overestimate our future performance when we focus on our past successes. We remember the wins and ignore the losses.
The flashing lights of winning points in a video game or $10 at slot machine make winning memorable. They increase the vividness of the experience, and decrease your willingness to calculate your losses.
A related cognitive bias is the confirmation bias. We tend to look for confirming evidence of our current beliefs and ignore contradictory evidence. When you think you’re a winner, you look for evidence that you are doing well. When you think you are right, you don’t analyze the pros and cons of the argument. You look for data that supports your premise.
Cognition is a complex, interactive process that works well for us most of the time. We can switch from fast and inaccurate techniques to slow and accurate approaches as needed. We interact with our environment and quickly adjust to its demands. We extract meaning and make decisions automatically, without tracking the entire process. The norm for us is a combination of logic, emotion and pre-processes categories. We use it all to make sense of the world.
Gestalt (German for shape or form) is a pre-cognitive theory based on perception research. In spite of our collecting many sensations, we perceive an experience as a whole. We automatically combine the complex interactions of stimuli into an integrated whole. We generate new structures, not just collections of sensory bits. In this sense, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
These perceptual units have self-organizing tendencies. That is, they automatically adapt to both pre-existing cognitive structures and the environment. Conscious experience, then, is a system of interactions. Using the Principle of Totality, conscious thought is a relational complex.
Max Wertheimer’s phi phenomenon (flashing lights that look like they are moving directionally) is a good example of the Gestalt approach to experimentation. In contrast to double-blind experiments, they prefer what they call phenomenon experimental analysis. The goal is to find a phenomenon and assess its sensory qualities and perceptual impact. These studies are conducted in natural settings (what they call biotic experiments).
In contrast to the structuralism of Wundt and Titchener (breaking perceptions down to the smallest definable sensory structures), Gestalt researchers (Wertheimer, Koffka, Kohler & Stumpf) emphasized the connection between consciousness and the brain. They called this correlation of experience and mental activity the Principle of Psychophysical Isomorphism.
The first major cognitive theory was information processing. Using the analogy of the mind as a computer, information processing psychology describes perceptions as inputs, thinking and problem solving as processes, memory as stores and behavior as outputs.
In contrast to behaviorism, which treated everything between input and output as a black box, information processing focuses on what goes on in that black box. Processing systems include attention, perception, short-term memory, stimulus discrimination and object identification. Each system transforms the information in predictable ways, passing it on to other systems for their processing.
The focus of constructivism is more global than information processing. Instead of looking at how items are compared, constructivism looks at how we get meaning from our experiences. Using the cognitive developmental models of Piaget and Vygotsky, constructivism emphasizes discovery learning and personalized instruction.
Jerome Bruner maintained that learning is an active process where we construct new ideas. We use what we already know to interpret new information, and then combine them into consolidated structures. We select which information to attend to, make hypotheses about its meaning and importance, and generate decisions based on this process. We “go beyond the information given” by imposing our own interpretations on it.
Constructivism prefers spiral curriculum, so students can add more information to the knowledge scaffolding with each presentation. The emphasis is on simplifying and manipulating information.
An extension of constructivism, contextual learning theory focuses on learning contexts. It advocates internships, peer teaching and experiential activities (field trips, study abroad, etc.).
Contextual learning emphasizes problem solving, student-focused learning, and active learning. It assumes students can self-monitor and self-regulation their learning and behavior. It sees a need for leaning in multiple contexts.