thought processes

What Are Cognitive Processes?

Read Time: 4 minutes

The human brain is a marvel of biological engineering. The three pounds of gray matter inside our skulls contain everything from our personality to our memories to the various autonomous controls keeping our body running. Everything you’ve ever thought, from the moment you were born until the day you die, is thanks to that remarkable organ. The things that we think, and the way that we think, are called cognitive processes. Psychology professionals currently recognize cognitive processes. What are the six cognitive processes and why are they so important?


Right now, as you’re reading this, you’re using one of your six cognitive processes — attention. This particular process gives you the ability to select an object to concentrate on. In this case, you’re focusing on the words, or even on the letters within the words that make up the sentences that you’re reading.

This cognitive process plays a role in many of the others as well. It might become overwhelmed if you’re subjected to an over-abundance of information or things that actually demand your attention.


Attention might let you focus on a single thing, but perception gives you the tools to collect information about the world around you. You collect that information through all five of your senses — sight, scent, taste, hearing and touch. Then, you turn the perception data you’ve collected into ideas that can later be stored as memories.

Touching a hot stove creates a pain response that teaches you not to do that again. Smelling a specific scent or hearing a particular piece of music can become associated with a specific memory. Our world and the way we see it is constantly colored by the cognitive process of perception.

It’s also entirely possible that no two people perceive the world in the same way. Remember the dress that took the world by storm in 2015? No one could agree if it was blue and black or white and gold, because we all perceive the world a little bit differently.


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What did you have for breakfast this morning? Do you remember what you ate for dinner? What was your childhood phone number or address? If you can remember the answer to any of these questions, then you are utilizing the third cognitive process — memory. When your brain collects information, it determines whether it needs to be saved or not. If data isn’t saved, you forget whatever the information was. If it is saved, it becomes a memory.

There are three different types of memory — short-term, long-term and sensory. Short-term memory is remembering what you had for breakfast this morning. Long-term memory is remembering your childhood phone number. Sensory memory allows us to connect a song, smell or a feeling with a specific memory.


If you’ve stuck with us this long, then you’re using yet another one of your brain’s cognitive processes — language. This process gives us the ability to understand the words we’re reading. Plus, it gives us the skills to communicate through the spoken or written word. Your language functions are housed in the brain’s cerebral cortex along with your personality and ability to plan for the future.

Our capability for language is something scientists considered as the deciding factor that separated the human race from the animals we evolved from. Some animals have developed their own non-verbal languages. Some — such as Koko the Gorilla — have learned sign language, allowing them to communicate with humans. However, our capacity for speech is something that is unique in the animal kingdom.


You might complain about the work that goes into learning a new skill or having to go to school every day, but having the ability to learn is one of the other major cognitive processes that our brains are capable of. Not only do we have the ability to learn new things, but we can also connect new things we’re learning with our previous experiences to create something uniquely our own.

Learning doesn’t necessarily make us unique in the animal kingdom. A dog can learn tricks and a parrot can learn to speak a few words in the human tongue. Nonetheless, learning gives us the ability to shape ourselves into the kind of people that we want to be.

Higher Reasoning

This is where things get interesting. The final cognitive process is higher reasoning, which includes things like problem-solving, planning and decision-making, among others.

An individual’s higher reasoning is often related to their expertise or experience in a particular field or domain. Someone trained and educated as a doctor, for example, would have more higher reasoning skills pertaining to medicine than someone with an educational background in writing or teaching.

Things like empathy and the ability to notice the similarities between two items or situations are also part of your higher reasoning.

The Importance of Cognitive Processes

Why are all these cognitive processes important?

In short, the cognitive processes make us who and what we are. Everything, from how we store memories to how we interact and perceive the world around us, is dependent on those processes.

We don’t switch between our cognitive processes. You don’t switch from higher reasoning to learning just because you walked into the classroom. Instead, these processes all overlap, often happening simultaneously. That is the wonder and the marvel of the human brain. We’ve got a biological computer with untold amounts of processing power hanging out in our skull.

Studying the Human Brain

Which cognitive processes do you think you used while you were reading this article? If you gave it your attention, perceived the feel of the screen under your fingers or the mouse in your hand, learned something new, and made a plan for what you want to do later, you’re using your brain to its full potential. What else do you want to learn about the human brain? Let us know in the comments below!

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.