Cognition Series


 The neurological causes of an animal’s, or similar goal-oriented agent’s, behavior.

There are a number of terms related to how humans think and act that need better definitions, but before we can start on that it would be useful to have an umbrella term to describe the entire category of ideas we’re talking about. We’re interested in things like consciousness or learning because those things make us who we are, they determine our outward behavior and the contents of our inner thoughts. There are lots of ways to describe what makes humans special – we’re thinking apes, we have imagination, we’re rational or intelligent. But it’s not exactly clear what the boundaries of those categories are and where they overlap. If we’re going to make sense of all of this we’re going to need a good place to start, and I say we start at the top with the broadest and most general term to define the entire category.

Cognition seems like a good candidate for a top level term, it’s already very broad and with a couple little tweaks I think we can make it both concrete and specific enough to work as the definition of this entire category of ideas, the category of processes that make human behavior interesting.

First let’s say that cognition is the neurological explanation for behavior. This is a bit of a shortcut because it’s essentially describing what “mental” means, without using that term. Unfortunately “mental” carries an implied meaning of not being physical, so for now it’s best to avoid it if we want to keep this definition grounded in concrete physical terms. Neurological on the other hand implies causes that are part of our nervous system, and that seems comprehensive enough to cover everything we’re talking about while still dealing with only clearly physical causes.

The downside to this is that it uses the term “behavior” which is very broad, and can apply to almost anything, so it needs to be narrowed down with some qualifiers. At first I wanted to say “human behavior”, but that means that animals couldn’t have cognition. But even using a broader qualifier like “animal behavior” would mean hypothetical aliens or sentient robots couldn’t have cognition. So we should go broader than even animals, while still not being so vague that we could talk about the cognition of simple machines. We don’t want to end up talking about the cognition of a fax machine or something like that. A good middle ground would be extend “animal behavior” to also include “or similar agent.” Again, this is a bit of a shortcut because it relies on a comparison to something we already know, but given how little we understand about the neural causes of complex behavior I think some leeway is useful here. The restrictions that it has to be an agent, i.e. something that can act independently and also be “goal oriented” should be enough to keep us on track. That rules out anything that just reacts to its environment instead of having an internal goal that it’s attempting to satisfy, and also anything that’s not an independent agent. So for example it would rule out a crowd of people or a colony of ants.

Now we have a definition of a broad category that can cover all the different kinds of processes that make humans act like we do, but it’s not so broad that it loses all meaning. The next step is to break down the major kinds of processes that this would cover. The five building blocks of human cognition that I want to define first are:

  • Consciousness
  • Learning
  • Emotions
  • Intelligence
  • Concept
  • Humor and Beauty

This isn’t the entire list of everything that causes human behavior, but I think these are the most important ones, and and if we can come up with good definitions for these terms that’ll give us a solid foundation for thinking about the rest. That’s what I’m going to be attempting to do for the next six articles, taken together they will outline a way to think about human cognition and how different facets of it interact to produce the behavior we know and experience.