Cognition Series


 The neurological causes of an animal’s, or similar 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 category we’re talking about. We’re interested in ideas 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 these descriptions 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 outermost boundaries of the topic.

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 concrete and specific enough to work as the definition of this category of ideas, the description of the interesting processes that make up human behavior.

To solve this problem of being broad while still being specific, let’s say that cognition is the neurological explanation for behavior. This is basically a long way of saying “mental” without relying on a term that implies it might not be physical. This would mean that anything that’s happening in our neurological systems that causes us to behave in any way would be a form of cognition.

The downside to this is that it uses the term behavior which 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 making it include the broader “animal behavior” would mean hypothetical aliens or robots couldn’t have any form of cognition. So we could go broader than even animals, but I wouldn’t want it to be so vague that we could talk about the cognition of a fax machine. A good middle ground would be “animal or similar agent”, an animal or anything that shows agency in the way animals do. It’s a bit of a shortcut, but given how much we still have to discover in this area it’s better to leave it a little open ended to allow for new ideas and information.

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:

  • Learning
  • Consciousness
  • Emotions
  • Intelligence
  • Concept

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 five 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.