What Are Cognitive Processes? (With Types and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 2, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Cognitive functions and processes assist the brain in processing information and responding effectively. Cognition helps humans work, interact, learn, experience emotions, and exist in societies. Learning about these processes can help you understand the complexity of the human brain and how it functions. In this article, we discuss the definition of cognitive processes, explain some important processes, and describe their use through examples.

What are cognitive processes?

Cognitive processes are chemical and electrical signals in the brain that help you understand your surroundings, control your responses, and gain knowledge. The cognitive process starts when neurons in the brain release chemicals that create electrical signals in nearby neurons. This creates a chain of signals that then become conscious and unconscious thoughts.

The brain performs cognitive work all the time, taking in new information and transforming it, storing it for the future, recovering it, and using it for daily activities. Cognition helps you to interact intelligently in the following ways:

  • Perceiving: Cognition helps you perceive your surroundings using sensations and information you receive through different senses. These are external stimuli that the brain understands through cognition.

  • Simplifying complexity: Multiple external sensory signals can occur simultaneously, and the brain focuses on the most prominent ones. Reducing complex concepts helps with information processing, making it easier to focus on one thing at a time.

  • Interacting: Cognition includes thought processes, memories, understanding of language, decision-making abilities, and how humans interact and behave in their surroundings. The response to diverse stimuli and sensory information occurs because of cognition.

  • Decision making: Cognition processes help in decision making as they help you compare information, form judgements, recall prior information, and consider new evidence. This helps the brain make informed decisions based on existing knowledge and experience.

  • Contextualizing information: Apart from making complex information more logical, cognition helps you recall memories and knowledge to provide context for new information. This allows the brain to understand the current situation better, as it fills the missing information gaps using its prior knowledge and experience.

Related: What Is Cognitive Ability? Definition and Examples

Forms of cognition

Here are a few different cognition functions and processes:

Memory

The brain automatically stores information, forming short-term memory. Eventually, some of it becomes long-term memory and helps influence your decisions, reactions, and personality. The formation, storage, and recall of memories can allow humans to learn and display intelligence. It's a key step that can enable you to decipher, store, and retrieve information as required.

Language

Language and language development are cognition processes that involve understanding and expressing thoughts in both written and spoken words. People usually find learning languages easier when they're younger and have higher fluid intelligence, which is the ability to learn new information quickly. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to recall knowledge and use it later. As people grow older, fluid intelligence decreases and crystallized intelligence increases. For example, the ability to use a large vocabulary is a part of cognitive processing due to crystallized intelligence.

Attention

Attention allows you to focus on a specific stimulus in your environment. It's a complex process and important in assisting people in performing daily activities. For example, although many visual and sensory signals are present while driving, people reduce the number of things they observe to help keep them focused. This includes looking ahead, tracking other vehicles, and checking the side view mirrors. Activities like watching a movie or listening to music are easier to focus on and may not need the same attention level. Other considerations when thinking about attention include shifting focus and moving between different tasks.

Thought

Thoughts occur within the conscious mind, but you rarely say them aloud or express them physically. Humans have complex thought processes that find expression as an inner voice. This language and expression exist only in the brain. Thought allows people to take in information and use it to interact with others. Understanding other people and expressing personality are other areas often considered as thoughts. Examples of thought processes include decision-making abilities, problem solving, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning.

Thought processes can occur in different ways. For instance, when you're deliberating a decision, you might talk and reason with yourself in the form of an inner voice. In contrast, when solving a simple mathematical calculation, you may apply the formula instinctively and get the result instantly.

Perception

Perception allows people to receive information from their surroundings through their senses and then use it to respond. It occurs through the five senses, sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. These processes interpret information consciously and unconsciously. The brain interprets information, forms thoughts, and decides on an appropriate reaction based on perception. For instance, the fragrance and flavour profile of a particular spice or herb may remind you of your favourite food or bring back a pleasant vacation memory.

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Application and uses of cognition

Here are some common ways in which humans use cognition processes:

Learning new things

Cognition plays a significant role in learning, as it involves receiving new information, processing it, and integrating it with past knowledge. Learning uses many cognition processes, including memory, perception, and thought. This combination of multiple processes helps you to learn and retain information for longer.

Communicating

Communication is a complex cognitive process that can involve many functions occurring simultaneously. A conversation may require a person to think about and analyze what they're hearing, remember the information, develop a response, and speak. It can also involve understanding and perceiving the other person's words and body language to remain focused on the conversation. All these processes help people to interact meaningfully with each other.

Related: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

Analyzing

Humans can analyze their environment and arrive at conclusions. Analyzing stimuli often uses several forms of cognition, such as perception, thought, and memory. For example, analyzing the best route to your workplace requires thinking about directions, looking for road signs, avoiding traffic, and remembering the shortest route. All these are different cognitive functions that help in making the right decisions.

Understanding and finding meaning

Understanding and deriving meaning can often rely on extensive use of cognition. Using thoughts, ideas, and philosophies to take actions based on your values can involve using several complex cognitive functions and processes when making your decision. For example, deciding to volunteer at a charity event may be a way for you to seek a sense of joy or fulfilment consciously.

Forming memories

The process of memory formation and recall can be complex. What you remember, what you forget, and how you remember a specific incident can show how your cognitive functions work. Recording, cataloguing, and storing memories for later recollection and adding them to your permanent knowledge base uses many forms of cognition.

Related: How Much do Neuropsychologists Make? (FAQs and Definitions)

Examples of cognitive processes:

Here are some examples of situations that require cognitive processes:

Dreaming

Dreams are complex neurological events that involve multiple sensory perceptions. They may include visualizations of real-world images and imagined scenarios. These visualizations may come from memories or other sources of information and help humans see dreams. Research shows that human brains have a lot of activity when dreams occur, which shows that several cognition processes may function simultaneously for humans to visualize dreams.

Driving

Driving is another common example of using cognition to apply procedural knowledge that may take place with no conscious recall. Similar to riding a bike, the process helps make perceiving stimuli an unconscious process. Once you learn to drive a car or ride a bike, the brain stores the instructions in another unconscious part. This unconscious part of the brain activates when you perform the act of driving or riding, giving instructions for the muscles to operate.

Reading

Reading a book involves understanding the text and visualizing the imagery described. The human brain can create comprehensive worlds in its imagination, and this part of the brain activates when reading. Translating sensory information from the eyes into the brain through words, thoughts, and memories uses multiple cognition processes. This helps the brain understand the plot, visualize the setting, and make sense of the symbols. A complex interaction of different cognition processes helps you imagine characters, moods, personalities, and environments when reading a book.

Doing homework

Completing homework can require the brain to rely on cognition processes, such as conscious thought, attention, and memory. Completing homework involves recalling the information you already know and understanding additional information. Combining them helps you accomplish tasks and activities. For example, when solving a math problem, you remember how to solve the question using information from the lesson and apply it with new numbers and variables to reach a new answer.

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