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
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.