Human cognition refers to how people think and learn. The process of learning involves physiological activities, behaviors, thoughts, memories and emotions. Understanding human cognition is a scientific and philosophical challenge.
The human being's thought system processes information, resulting in learning. The brain interprets and stores input and applies it to new situations. The new input is added to existing information and compared with and connected to related information, so the new learning can be accessed in the future. The brain plus information leads to cognition.
The brain is the conductor of the learning process. The brain manipulates all other parts and functions of the body, managing all input and output. All biological processes, including cognition, are the result of brain activity. Each person's ability to learn and understand is aided or limited by one's brain capacity. Everyone's brain changes constantly. As people gather new information, their brains change. Human intellect is malleable, in that a person can develop new understanding or change one's opinions about something. Biologically, new pathways between neurons are continually made. People have billions of neurons, and they use an estimated 10 percent of their intellectual potential.
Neural connections strengthen and weaken during a person's lifetime. Additional connections are made as people learn and think. New experiences also modify the brain, shaping and reforming it as new information is added. If connections fall into disuse, they weaken and eventually disengage. If a skill or knowledge is not used, the brain gradually forgets it.
Young children receive input via their senses, which stimulate the electrical firing of connections within their brains. A stimulating environment results in more connections, which grant more opportunities for future learning. Adults also need enriched environments to promote cognition. Participating in new activities and reading new information promotes the use of different neural pathways.
Language is essential to human cognition. Babies babble, young children create sentence structures to express their thoughts and adults use body language to relate their feelings. We send and receive information through various forms of communication. Physical gestures, facial expressions, verbal and written messages and tactile stimulation are all forms of communication.
Development of language skills directly affects one's ability to learn. A strong vocabulary and understanding language rules improves one's ability to interpret written and spoken information. The ability to express oneself is essential to relationships with other human beings. Also, inner conversations, or "talking to yourself," help people grapple with problems, motivate themselves and maintain a conscience that prevents them from wrongdoing.
Memory is another key aspect of human cognition. The brain has to store a vast warehouse of information, accessing the right information when needed. Both long-term and short-term memory are important. Short-term memory is important in the moment, such as remembering to take food out of the oven when it has finished cooking. Long-term memory is important to retaining skills or knowledge that are learned, such as how to balance a checkbook.
Learning takes place during time. New knowledge generally builds on previously acquired knowledge. The pace of learning depends on the foundations on which it is laid. For example, a child who has learned to balance and dribble a ball has the basis to learn to play basketball. The ability to focus on a task and follow directions will speed up a student's process of learning.
Adults do not immediately grasp every new piece of information. Some information is easy for some to gain, while others struggle to understand. Background and experience in the subject make learning easier and more expedient. Gaining new knowledge takes patience and time.
The brain must be ready to learn new tasks. Children, whose minds are constantly developing, must be at the right level of cognitive ability before their minds can grasp new information. They have to pass cognitive stages and create more neural connections before they are ready for new levels of cognition. For example, most children are not able to learn to read before age 5. They lack the ability to recognize letters as symbols of sounds before that time.
An individual's attitude toward learning also affects cognition. A teenager who resents having to spend time at school may close his or her mind to learning, effectively cutting off the ability to learn new information. An adult who is stubbornly attached to his or her opinion about a subject may refuse to learn new facts pertaining to the subject. People tend to be more open to learning about topics that interest them.