Often cognition and memory are used as synonyms and is even used interchangeably. However, these are, even though inter-related, not essen-tially the same. Cognition has different definitions and interpretations but so far the most influential is given by Neisser(1967). According to him, cognition refers to the mental process by which external or internal input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. As such, it involves a variety of functions such as perception, attention, memory, coding, retention, recall, decision making, reasoning, problem-solving, imaging, planning, and executing actions. Such mental processes involve the generation and use of internal representations to varying degrees, and may operate independently (or not) at different stages of processing. Furthermore, these processes can, to some extent be observed or at least empirically probed, leading to scientific investigation by means of methods like those used in psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
From the definition of cognition, it is clear that many processes that are assessed and studied in psychology like memory and intelligence are essentially cognitive processes or is part of cognition. Since these cognitive process operate in collaboration or independently, as per the requirement of the task involved, it is not easy to track, observe or empirically study these processes. William James, father of experimental psychology, argued that a degree of vagueness can be beneficial to science when attempting new research directions (1890/1955). The vagueness that was essential in the early days led to different theoretical concepts and experiments. These variety of theories were tested, polished, revamped and consolidated over the years.
Consider memory, which is one of the most studied concepts in cognitive psychology. If we put together the latest understanding of memory we can say that it is a process that involve encoding, storage, decoding and retrieval. Encoding itself involves perception, attention and a myriad of sensory processes. Storage involves reasoning, planning, and rehearsals etc. Decoding involves same/ another set of broad processes likeattention, imagery etc and then retrieval involves planning and executive processes. Now, right from sensation and perception to executive functions, a long list of processes are involved when we speak about memory itself.
The latest fMRI studies help us in build-ing our knowledge about the area/ brain connectivity involved in the different types of memory processing. This in turn will help us in rehabilitation and maybe in future, prevention of disorders of memory, like dementia. When the fMRI studies highlight the areas involved, the behavioral and emotional processes that are part and parcel of the human psyche, when memory is evoked, is the essential part of cognitive psychology. Thus, the tools that we are testing memory with, require the kind of sophistication to tap into all the sensitive areas that are involved.
Now, another concept that has monopolised attention of cognitive psychologists for decades, is intelligence. Hundreds of theories and controversies surround the concept of intelligence and continue to do so. Intelligence (if we try) in consolidation involves memory and most (if not all) other processes of cognition mentioned by Neiser. In a way,we can say intelligence is cognition, what make it different from or rather only part of cognition is that, over the years we have developed methods by which we can quantify intelligence and the fact that learning from experience/environment and using it in day to day activities, is a major part of intelligence. Intelligence testing has come a long way from Terman’s concept of mental age. Most of the tests used these days assess the test taker in different dimensions of intelligence. A set of complex, interconnected and co-ordi-nated processes are involved in a cognitive process like intelligence. Hence assessment of intelligence should cover (at least attempt) all major areas considered to be involved in the concept of intelligence.
Cognition, in effect, is the umbrella under which all the different processes like memory, intelligence, attention, learning, and executive function crowd together. Thus, when we speak about any of these processes it is cognition that we refer to and brain is the seat of cognition. It is fascinating that a small part of the human body can control, co-ordinate, manipulate, fabricate and add on to the existing or incoming data.
In a nutshell what we still ‘know’ about cognition for a fact is:
• It is a complex process involving many levels, stages, processes and systems.
• Sometimes these processes work independently and sometimes in an interconnected pattern.
• Further research and studies are essential to gain more under standing of the layers, processes and interconnections.