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Cognitive Function: Definition & Assessment

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Instructor: Gina Mitchell
Cognitive functions, including memory, attention, language, decision making, and problem-solving, are mental processes that help people gather and process information. Explore a definition of cognitive function and the four most common types of cognitive function assessments used by psychologists. Updated: 09/13/2021

What Is a Cognitive Function?

Cognitive psychologists study cognitive functions to understand how we acquire information and process that information. To understand how this works, think about your life. In what ways do you acquire information, and how do you use that information? Many processes are involved in acquiring information, including listening, watching, reading, searching out information, or just paying attention to things around you. In all cases, you are using your cognitive functions to gather information.

Cognitive functions include:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Language
  • Perception
  • Decision making
  • Problem solving

Each cognitive function works to help you gather and process information, and they often work together in interrelated processes. Let's take a closer look at how all of these work in action.

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  • 0:01 What Is a Cognitive Function?
  • 0:54 Memory, Decision…
  • 2:21 Attention, Language,…
  • 3:37 Cognitive Function Assessment
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Memory, Decision Making, and Problem Solving

Say that you are engaged in conversation with your mother over where you should eat for dinner. Your mother is providing you several reasons why it is better to eat at restaurant A. You, on the other hand, want to eat at restaurant B. As you discuss the pros and cons of each restaurant, you have to keep the comments your mother makes in your head. You also have to pull from your existing knowledge and create a counter argument to your mother's comments. This process involves your working memory. Working memory is the cognitive function whereby you keep information in mind to work on it and solve a particular problem. In this case, you are keeping information your mother tells you in mind, while simultaneously thinking about how you can use that information against your mother.

Working memory

Although we can't see and measure how and where that information is stored in the brain, we still have been studying working memory for many years. In fact, a fairly complex theory for how it works exists. The basic theory of working memory suggests that there are several components of the working memory system that include a phonological loop for storing verbal content, a visual spatial sketch pad for storing visual information, and a central executive that oversees everything. Conceptualizing these elements helps us to see how memory works and the different underlying mental processes that occur when we engage in the cognitive function.

Attention, Language, and Perception

Other cognitive functions work in similar ways. If we look at attention, we can see that it can be divided into several different categories. For example, there is divided attention or sustained attention. In divided attention, we split our attention between two or more things, while in sustained attention, we focus on one thing for a period of time. Each of these functions works to gather and process information and is performed by a cognitive system in the brain.

Likewise, language involves using speech expression and speech comprehension to communicate ideas. Language can also influence the way we think about things. If we look at different cultures and their use of language, we see that not having words for specific colors or numbers can change the way we perceive color and quantity. This illustrates an important concept about our cognitive functions - they interact and are connected. Language has the ability to influence the way we process information, while attention might influence the way we perceive something or even remember it. If we focus our attention on a particular element, we are more likely to remember it; in contrast, if we use divided attention, we are less likely to remember either of the items.

Cognitive Function Assessment

As previously mentioned, we can't exactly see how cognitive functions occur in the brain. However, we are still able to study them.

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