Cognitive processes: What are they? Can they improve?
Detecting changes around us, remembering a shopping list, deciding what apartment to rent, helping a friend with a problem… What do all these situations have in common? We are able to do them thanks to our mental or cognitive processes. Wondering about the types of cognitive processes, how do they intervene in education, how can you improve them and more? Keep reading below!
What are mental or cognitive processes?
Cognitive processes refer to a number of tasks the brain does continuously. They are procedures in charge of processing all the information we receive from the environment. Thanks to these cognitive processes, cognition exists and it allows us to explore the world.
Imagine you are sitting on your sofa while watching a movie. Even though the movie is interesting, you start smelling something burning. What do you do? Fortunately, your brain will center all of its attention in the possible danger you are facing.
Suddenly, you remember that you had a pizza in the oven. You will run to the kitchen as fast as you can and coordinate a series of motor movements to take it out of the oven. Then you will decide whether to eat the less burnt parts or go back to the living room. Cognitive processes have guided this whole scenario and actions.
A harmonious interaction between cognitive processes is fundamental so that we can analyze reality adequately and adapt to it. Thanks to mental processes we can be flexible to changes and demands of the situation. Our executive functions are in charge of coordinating these processes.
Even though, the example we saw the cognitive processes acted together, they can also act separately. For example, people with a language disorder can still perceive stimuli perfectly and can solve mathematical problems.
Who studies cognitive processes?
Cognitive processes are analyzed from different sciences including, sociology, linguistics, neurology, anthropology, and philosophy. As for psychology, cognitive psychology is the field in charge of studying cognitive processes.
In the 60’s, a new psychological perspective emerged that lead to the cognitive revolution and the study of cognitive processes. Mental processes in psychology are now thoroughly investigated. They are now even applied not only to explain disorders but to areas such as marketing and sales.
Neuroimaging or brain imaging has been of great help in how we process information and what parts of the brain are related to what cognitive processes. In this article, we will take a closer look at how different cognitive processes influence your daily life.
Types of cognitive processes
Basic Cognitive Processes
Sensation and perception
Sensations are caused by different stimuli in our environment. The stimuli first reach our senses and allow us to filter information from the outside world. Once we receive this information, perception takes over and we start interpreting these stimuli.
We are continuously using our perception without even noticing it. We are conscious of other people’s movements, messages we receive on our phone, food flavors, our posture, etc. Our past experiences also play a part in the interpretation of different stimuli.
Gestalt psychologists were the main researchers in perception.
“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”- Gestalt
They believed that we are active human beings that process reality as a whole comprised of different parts. They also explained how different types of perception can happen including illusions.
Life has many stimuli happening at the same time, however, we are capable of centering our attention on the stimuli that interest us. Some actions such as walking and chewing require little attention. Nonetheless, other activities such as speaking and body language require focus, especially when we are giving a lecture.
Attention is the cognitive process that makes it possible to position ourselves towards relevant stimuli and consequently respond to it.
Fortunately, we managed to automate certain processes that we have to repeat several times a day, making it easier to focus on other tasks. For example, at first learning to drive and focus on all the things one must do is difficult but after a while, it is done naturally and without thinking.
What is the capital of France? Who was your best friend in primary school? How do you play the guitar? Our memory has the answers to these questions and much more. It allows us to encode the data we receive from the environment, consolidate and retrieve it later.
We have different types of memory; sensory memory, short-term memory, working memory, semantic memory, etc. All these types of memories interact together but they don’t all depend on the same brain areas. An example of this is people with amnesia still remember how to walk but can’t remember their partner’s name.
High or Complex Cognitive Processes
According to Gardner’s multiple bits of intelligence, there is not only one intelligence but several different bits of intelligence. He established that intrapersonal intelligence, linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, and musical intelligence are examples of higher cognitive processes. Recently, emotional intelligence has caught people’s attention, it is the ability to manage the difficulties we face daily.
We can always work to strengthen our different types of intelligence and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a number given from a specific intelligence test.
The complexity and heterogeneity of our thoughts are fascinating. This higher mental process is responsible for tasks related to problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making, creative thinking, divergent thinking, etc.
To simplify these functions, our brain creates concepts. We need to group ideas, objects, people or any other kind of elements that come to mind. Usually, this helps us streamline our cognitive processes. However, sometimes we try to be logical and often ignore how irrational we can be. We take shortcuts to process information faster not taking into account the details that might be important. This can lead to cognitive biases, which are deviations from the normal process of reasoning. For example, we sometimes believe that we are able to figure out what is going to happen in a game of chance.
On occasions, cognitive biases can lead to cognitive distortions which are extremely negative and irrational thoughts, for example, “the world hates me”. It’s always important to remember we are able to stop these thoughts and work on them. If these thoughts overpower you, it’s crucial you speak to someone.
Astonishingly, we are capable of producing and comprehending different sounds and words, combine different letters and phrases and expressing with precision what we want to communicate, even in different languages. We even use our body language to communicate.
Language development is produced all throughout our lifetime. The communicative skills of each person vary significantly and can be improved by practice. Some language disorders especially make it difficult to communicate for different reasons, although it is also possible to help people with these problems.
Cognitive Processes in Education: Applications and Examples
Cognitive Processes in psychology are analyzed in order to help us improve our quality of life. It’s basic that we learn how to develop and manage them from birth. In school, we face different activities that test our skills and ability to learn, listen and solve unforeseeable obstacles.
Cognitive Processes in Learning
All the different theories of learning, except for associative learning, take into account our cognitive processes. However, no cognitive process acts on its own in the learning process. We strive to integrate all of our resources to improve our study habits and achieve meaningful learning. Cognitive processes play a part in learning things such as math concepts and abstract operations. When these fail it is possible to develop dyscalculia. Find out how to treat dyscalculia.
Cognitive Processes in Reading
When faced with a book, we must recognize the letters, avoid distracting ourselves with irrelevant stimuli, remember the words we are reading, associate what we read with other contents that we learned previously, etc. We use our cognitive processes from the beginning to the end. However, the number of cognitive processes will vary since we will not process the information in the same way if we only want to find a fragment that interests us other than reading the whole book.
Cognitive Processes in Writing
As for the cognitive processes involved in writing, the same happens with those related to reading. We need to ignore the noises that make it difficult for us to write, to make our writing readable, to remember what we have written in the previous paragraphs, to worry about our spelling, etc. In addition, we also need to properly plan what we want to write. Is this expression too colloquial? Will others understand what I mean? Does this zero look like an o?
When there is a problem in cognitive processes in reading and/or writing it might be symptoms of dyslexia. Find out what is dyslexia.
How can you improve your cognitive processes?
Tips and activities to improve your mental processes
We can train our cognitive processes at any stage in our lives, regardless of age. Here are some tips on how to train and take care of your cognitive processes.
1. Take care of your health
Our physical and mental health is inseparable from our cognitive processes. There are various bad habits that harm our minds and worsen our performance in different areas of our lives. For example, being on our cell phone before going to bed, underestimating ourselves, neglecting our social relationships or not eating properly can affect our mental processes.
2. Benefit from technology
Today there are different activities one can do to train our brains in a fun and simple way. CogniFit personalized brain training evaluates and stimulates cognitive processes. This is done through fun games and activities that can strengthen and rehabilitate cognitive processes such as memory, planning, visual scanning, and shifting. Its activities adapt to children and adults alike and you can compare your results with people all around the world.
3. Reflect on your progress
Self-appraisals are important since they show us our progress and where we might need to make more efforts to continue advancing. It’s essential that we believe in ourselves and our ability to strengthen our cognitive processes. It’s a matter of practicing and self-confidence.
4. Develop Critical Thinking
Try to ask yourself questions and look for different arguments. This allows for critical thinking to develop, and in turn increases our reasoning, creativity, and language. Curiosity is essential in order to develop our full potential. Critical thinking can be developed from childhood, by asking children to explain, reason and debate their decisions and actions. You can also put these into practice!
Reading implies lots of cognitive processes as we explained above. Other than producing great satisfaction and knowledge, reading is also a way to learn to focus and work on our communication skills.
6. Dedicate time to creative activities
Painting, writing short stories, composing songs, dancing, performing… It doesn’t matter the activity you choose, the important thing is that creativity is being used. Creativity is all about practice and perseverance, so go out and try something new!
Creativity allows us to develop our intelligence, concentration, problem-solving, sustained attention and ability to de-stress and relax. Creativity is all about practice and perseverance, so go out and try something new!
7. Avoid multitasking
It’s quite common that our obligations are many and we don’t know how to get all of them done. It’s normal that we try to multitask so we can finish everything quicker. However, this can be counterproductive since our attention is not centered on one activity. For example, if you are watching a movie while you are answering an email, writing a paper and cooking it is very probable that one of those things will turn out wrong. It’s preferable to center your attention in the present in order to enjoy each activity to the fullest and be more efficient. This can also help in overcoming procrastination since it centers your attention on one activity making it easier to focus and not get distracted.
8. Let your children solve their own difficulties.
We need to support our children, however, it’s also very important that they don’t get used to us solving all their difficulties. Solving problems is a way to strengthen cognitive processes, therefore, starting at a young age is important. Giving clues is a perfect way to encourage children to think outside the box.
If you would like to know more about this topic or review concepts we have discussed we invite you to watch the following video about cognitive processes in psychology.
If you have any other questions or comments, don’t hesitate to leave your comment below.
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.