Physiological & Psychological Factors of Cognition

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

We can use our minds to create art, learn languages, construct marvelous inventions, and investigate remote mathematics conclusions. In this lesson, we'll discuss the physiological and psychological factors that allow us to do wonderful things with our minds.

What are Physiological Factors, Psychological Factors, and Cognition?

Siana is seven years old and fluent in three languages. Martha is seventy and can barely remember her native language. What is the difference? Why can't everyone learn anything they want, remember everything they want to remember, and completely understand the world around them? In this lesson, we'll discuss the different factors that affect our cognitive abilities.

Cognition refers to the various functions that represent our awareness. It includes the things we experience, the formation of memories, and our ability to analyze and create. Most of the work takes place in the intricate neural map that is spread across your cerebral cortex, the intricate surface of your brain where your thoughts and memories happen.

Physiological factors are things related to your physical body that affect your thinking. For example, when your body's chemistry is off, due to unbalanced nutrition, dehydration, alcohol, etc., the neurotransmitters that control your thinking processes can be affected. Physiological factors also include changes to the brain's structure due to injuries, extended periods of inactivity, or physical stress.

Psychological factors are the elements of your personality that limit or enhance the ways that you think. Your personality can render something as simple as conversation extremely difficult or very easy. A phobia (illogical and uncontrollable fear) can limit or even control the ways that you think or react.

Cognition and Creativity

When you try to do something new, whether it be an art project, a new language, or even that remarkable invention you've been imagining, your neural circuits (nerve connections) grow, expand, and form new networks. Your mind can learn almost anything. So, why are some people better at languages than others, and why are kids often better at learning languages than adults?

Each of your brain's activities happens in certain regions of your brain. These regions help you imagine, construct, and express yourself. Your ability to advance your thoughts in each creative function is heavily dependent upon the amount of resource area available in that region of your brain.

This means that the parts of your brain that control speech can vary in size and influence between individuals, and can also be crowded out by other functions, which may 'elbow' their way in as you grow older. This is important, because your memory is a lot like storage in your house. You can put more stuff in a large room than you can a small drawer or box. Children tend to have more effective space (good locations for neural connections) available in their cerebral cortex, which often allows them to make language and perceptual links more quickly.

Physiological Factors

In physiological terms, thinking is merely electro-chemistry. Chemicals shift within your neural synapses (small gaps that control the flow of information between nerve endings) and allow electrical signals to travel along certain pathways. Your brain creates new neural connections in response to your experiences and the things you think about, using chemicals to control the process.

This delicate chemistry can be disrupted by the chemicals that show up in your blood. For example, alcohol and depressants can slow down the information processing, causing some connections not to fire (or to fire at a slower rate), which slows down your thinking process and may help you relax. Stimulants have the opposite effect. They can speed up interconnections, causing thoughts to process more rapidly, increasing your stress. Some types of drugs (hallucinogens) can cause misfires, creating images and interconnections that disrupt or fragment your thinking.

Dehydration, malnutrition, and pain can also interfere with your thinking. Damage to the production centers for neurotransmitters, neurohormones, and related chemicals can cause disruption, even to the point of seizure or coma. Physical damage to the neural pathways themselves (such as due to a head injury or disease) can cause 'short-circuits' (neural connections firing constantly) or permanent obstructions in the pathways, causing seizures, amnesia, or even schizophrenia (fragmented thought processes).

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