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Chapter 7: Cognition

Part One: Visual Information Processing

Part Two: Language

Part Three: Motor Activity

Part Four: Thinking and Problem Solving

Overview of Chapter 7: Cognition

The word cognition refers to every kind of mental process that involves knowledge or thinking. Emotions were somewhat neg­lected in the 1960s and 1970s but are now definitely included, and so are unconscious processes. As a result, cognitive psych­ology includes all mental processes; none are intentionally left out.

All cognitive processes involve internal representation. The phrase "internal representation" includes knowledge of the world, including social knowledge and knowledge of ourselves. Roger Schank, an influential cognitive scientist, said simply, "We have in our minds a model of the world" (Schank, 1983).

We take the world inside us in order to participate in it. As a result, we can model in our internal representations (such as dreams) just about anything we can experience in outside reality, plus more.

In dreams you can imagine flying, psychokinesis (moving objects using willpower) and various forms of magic never seen in outside reality. Even without dreaming, a musical person can imagine complex songs, athletes can imagine complex motor movements, and so forth.

About 97% of us can generate pictures or images in our minds; the other 3% probably can when they are dreaming, but do not know how to produce imagery while awake. Cognitive psychology makes it clear the human brain is the ultimate synthesizer.

The late 1970s witnessed the emergence of a new discipline called cognitive science, a combination of cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and any other discipline dealing with intelligent information processing.

Cognitive scientists are interested in both the software (the logic and information processing) and the hardware (brain mechanisms) of human cognition. Cognitive neuroscientists combine investigation of brain processes and cognitive psychology.

Brain scanning technologies gave a boost to cognitive neuroscience in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 21st Century, brain scanning is often included as one of several measures, in cognitive science articles.

We have barely started down the path of understanding how the mind works. If progress continues, one day we will look back upon this era as the opening steps of a very long journey toward understanding cognition.

How this chapter is organized

We start the chapter with visual scene analysis, an approach to visual perception pioneered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers at MIT. It establishes a theme that recurs throughout the chapter: that cognitive products are assembled in an atmosphere of constraints in a process resembling problem solving. We also discuss mental imagery in the section on visual perception and review evidence for at least two types of human imagery.

The second section of the chapter is about language. We review the stages of language development in humans and examine the problem of language comprehension, which turns out to bear a fundamental resemblance to the problem of visual scene analysis.

Motor activity, the focus of the third section, is not something most people associate with cognition. But it follows the same pattern as other cognitive activities. It is creative, it is based on schemata, it can be conscious or unconscious, it can be represented in imagination.

Finally, in the fourth section, we discuss thinking and problem solving. We review computer simulations of problem solving, from the general problem solver (GPS) to expert systems, to SOAR, a program that attempted to combine earlier approach­es.

Related topics in other chapters

Chapter 1 (Psychology and Science) describes the earliest work on mind and consciousness, as well as the cognitive revolution in the 1970s. Chapter 3 (States of Consciousness) begins with a discussion of conscious and unconscious processing, the concept of attention, and Neisser's proposal for two modes of consciousness.

Chapter 4 (Senses and Perception) presents gestalt psychology, size constancy, and depth perception in the visual system. Chapter 6 (Memory) is entirely devoted to a subdivision of cognitive psychology.

Chapter 8 (Animal Behavior and Cognition) includes research on cognitive processes of animals. Chapter 9 (Motivation and Emotion) includes a section on cognitive motives, Chapter 10 (Development) contains a section on cognitive development in children, and Chapter 15 (Social Psychology) features a section on Social Cognition.


Schank, R. (1983, April). A conversation with Roger Schank. Psychology Today, pp.28-36.

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