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What Is Cognition?

Cognition refers, quite simply, to thinking. There are the obvious applications of conscious reasoning—doing taxes, playing chess, deconstructing Macbeth—but thought takes many subtler forms, such as interpreting sensory input, guiding physical actions, and empathizing with others.

The old metaphor for human cognition was the computer—a logical information-processing machine. You can’t spell cognition without the “cog.” Yet while some of our thoughts may be binary, there's a lot more to our “wetware” than 0's and 1's. Research on cognition focuses not just on thinking, but also on attention, the creation and storage of memories, knowledge acquisition and retention, language learning, and logical reasoning. As people gain new experiences, their cognition can change in subtle but powerful ways.

Reasoning and Decision Making


The greatest divide between humans and all other animals resides in our higher-order mental processes. Research in cognition has of late been especially focused on how people make decisions—including via fast or slow thinking. Fast thinking is intuitive, automatic, and nearly impossible to switch off, relying on heuristic processes to come to a “good enough” decision. By contrast, slow thinking takes a great deal of time and energy analyzing all available data before reaching a conclusion. Cognitive biases such as stereotyping and self-serving biases, such as the belief that one is above average on many a trait, have also been isolated and explored by behavioral scientists in an attempt to help people think more objectively.

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Learning and Memory


Memories aren’t impartial and accurate recordings of what happened in the past. They can be shaped by present experiences, desires, and fears. It’s also possible to unintentionally create a false memory to fulfill a psychological need. Different types of memory can include sensory, short term, and long term, and the way that memory is stored can have a profound effect on how we learn and apply knowledge.


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Metacognition is the act of thinking about one’s own mental processes. Metacognitive awareness allows people to identify, monitor, and uproot negative self-talk and self-limiting beliefs, and to be efficient in goal-setting and task execution. Thinking about and challenging one’s own thinking is at the heart of many types of therapy, including CBT.

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