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Abilities that most of us take for granted – our memory, decision making powers, attention span, problem solving skills, use and understanding of language, are all faculties of cognition.

What is cognition?

Cognitive abilities dictate whether we can hold down a job. They affect our ability to communicate and to socialise. Described as ‘the faculty of knowing and perceiving’, cognition is one of the core mental activities along with conation, the exercise of will, and affection, the experience of feelings.

The study of cognition spans many disciplines, from linguistics to neurology. In SCP, cognition is studied using neuropsychological, imaging and neurophysiological techniques. Using a series of tests, psychologists assess a variety of skills such as memory, planning and processing information. The results of these tests indicate how conditions like schizophrenia lead to the observable changes in behaviour.

Researchers in CNRC combine cognitive tests with brain imaging techniques such as fMRI (see brain imaging backgrounder) to provide a powerful way of seeing how structural changes in the brain correlate with functional abnormalities.

What affects cognition?

Cognition can be affected in many ways. Levels of cognition change during illness, as a result of medication and certain cognitive functions change with age. Changes due to ageing can be hard to detect, but often older people find difficulties in learning new information even though they can remember events from years back very clearly.
Areas of cognition

Memory, planning strategies, attention spans and mental state attribution all involve cognitive function. These can all be broken down into subcategories, for example, clinical experience and research evidence have shown that people can remember different information to varying degrees depending on the way that the material was retained and how it is used. This has led to the study of different kinds of memory, such as:
Working memory - information is simultaneously stored and used. For example, dialling a telephone number from a directory requires working memory skills.
Episodic memory involves the encoding and storage about personal experiences in relation to other events). Semantic memory can be thought of as the memory of the meanings of words, concepts and factual knowledge.
Procedural memory requires knowledge of how to carry out an action, e.g. how to increase the speed in a car.