7B: Cognition

Thinking, Problem Solving, Creativity, and Language

"The average newspaper boy in Pittsburgh knows more about the universe than did Galileo, Aristotle, Leonardo, or any of those other guys who were so smart they only needed one name."

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, 2006


Thinking, or cognition, refers to all of the mental activities associated with thinking, knowing, remembering, and communicating. In its simplest form, thinking can be broken down into concepts, problem solving, and decision making/judgment forming.

In order to think about all of the events, objects, and people in our world we simplify things by forming concepts, mental groupings of similar objects, events, idea, and people. While some concepts form by definition, most concepts form by developing prototypes. All of these concepts are further organized into categories known as hierarchies. Heuristics offer shortcuts for when we need to act quickly. There are two main types of heuristics: availability and representativeness. For example, the following image satirizes the availability heuristic's impact on the danger of sharks by comparing them to coconuts.

The benefit of concepts is that they serve to speed up and guide our thinking. While they speed up cognition, they do not make us wise. For example, if a heart attack victim does not show the signs of a prototype heart attack, one might fail to recognize it as a heart attack and fail to get proper help.

Beyond the concept of concepts is the idea of the human ability to solve problems. The brain relies on two main strategies when solving problems: algorithms, and heuristics. Through these two strategies the brain relies on trial and error to solve a problem. While algorithms are step-by-step procedures that guarantee a solution, heuristics are simpler and faster procedures but are more error prone. When neither of these methods work, we occasionally have moments of insight, bursts of activity in the right temporal lobe where the answer to the problem sudden pops into our mind.

Problem solving requires a certain level of creativity, the ability to produce novel and valuable ideas. In line with creativity there are two different kinds of thinking: convergent, where there is only one answer, and divergent, where the answer requires creativity. Sternberg broke creativity into five separate components: expertise, imaginative, a venturesome personality, intrinsic motivation, and a creative environment.

With problem solving comes cognitive tendencies that act as obstacles. The two key obstacles are confirmation bias and fixation. One's mental set can also lead to fixations such as functional fixation.

The combination of our use of heuristics, our eagerness to confirm our existing beliefs, and our knack for explaining away our behaviors combine to create overconfidence.

Intuition enables us to react quickly and usually adaptively. Intuition also feeds our expertise, creativity, love, and spirituality.

Issues presented in different ways result in different answers as a result of framing, how an issue is proposed.


Language, our spoken, written, or spoken works and the way we combine them as we think and communicate.  Through language we are able to share our cognitive thoughts with other people.

Spoken language has building blocks referred to as phonemes, basic units of sound, and morphemes, that smallest units of sound that carry meaning. Language also abides by a system of rules known as grammar, which is further broken down into semantics, deriving meaning, and syntax, using rules to order words into meaningful sentences.  According to Nom Chomsky, children acquire untaught words and grammar at a rate that is too large to be explained solely by learning principles.  Chomsky saw that given adequate nurture, language will occur naturally.

As language develops in infants it follows the stages: babbling, one-word, two-word, and telegraphic, eventually developing into fluent language. Language development occurs in stages universal to all human infants regardless of culture. Infants and young children are more receptive to language acquisition in comparison to adults due to a higher brain plasticity during their critical period of learning.

Thinking and Language

According to linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, language determines the way we think. This hypothesis is referred to as linguistic determinism. While language may not determine cognition as Whorf stated, language and words influence our thinking.

Studies by Roberson and Davidoff reveal that words also influence our perception of colors. While we see colors similarly regardless of location/culture, we use our native language to classify and remember colors. As a result, perceived differences in color grow when colors are assigned different names between languages. For example, in the image below, two different "blues" or "greens" that share the same name are harder to distinguish than two items with the different names "blue" and "green."

Not only do words convey ideas, but ideas and images also may precede words/conscious thought. Often times we think in images.

As a whole, the relationship between language and cognition can be summed up by stating: thinking affects our language, which then affects our thought.


Key Terms

  1. Cognition – All the mental activities associated with thinking knowing, remembering, and communicating (Pg. 289, 417).
  2. Concept – A mental grouping of similar objects, events, ideas, or people (Pg. 298).
  3. Prototype – A mental image or best example of a category. Matching new items to a prototype provides a quick and easy method for sorting items into categories (Pg. 299).
  4. Algorithm – A methodical, logical rule or procedure that guarantees solving a particular problem (Pg. 300).
  5. Heuristic – A simple thinking strategy that often allows us to make judgments and solve problems efficiently (Pg. 300)
  6. Insight – A sudden and often novel realization of the solution to a problem (Pg. 236, 300).
  7. Creativity – The ability to produce novel and valuable ideas (Pg. 301).
  8. Confirmation Bias – A tendency to search for information that supports our preconceptions and to ignore or distort contradictory evidence (Pg. 303).
  9. Fixation – (1)The inability to see a problem from a new perspective, by employing a different mental set. (2) According to Freud, a lingering focus of pleasure-seeking energies, at an earlier psychosexual stage, in which conflicts were unresolved (Pg. 303, 483).
  10. Mental set – A tendency to approach a problem in one particular way, often a way that has been successful in the past (Pg. 303).
  11. Functional Fixedness – The tendency to think of things only in terms of their usual functions (Pg. 303).
  12. Representativeness Heuristic – Judging the likelihood of things in terms of how well they seem to represent, or match, particular prototypes (Pg. 304).
  13. Availability Heuristic – Estimating the likelihood of events based on their availability in memory (Pg. 305).
  14. Overconfidence – The tendency to be more confident than correct (Pg. 306).
  15. Belief perseverance: Clinging to one’s initial concepts after the basis on which they were formed has been discredited (Pg. 307).
  16. Intuition: An effortless, immediate, automatic feeling out thought (Pg. 308).
  17. Framing: The way an issue is posed (Pg. 311).
  18. Language: Our spoken, written, or signed words and the ways we combine them to communicate meaning (Pg. 313).
  19. Phoneme: In language, the smallest distinctive sound unit (Pg. 313).
  20. Morpheme: In a language, the smallest unit that carries meaning (Pg. 314).
  21. Grammar: In a language, a system of rules that enables us to communicate with and understand others (Pg. 314).
  22. Semantics: The set of rules by which we derive meaning from morphemes, words, and sentences in a given language (Pg. 314).
  23. Syntax: The rules for combining words into grammatically sensible sentences in a given language (Pg. 314).
  24. Babbling stage: The stage of speech development in which the infant spontaneously utters various sounds at first unrelated to the household language (Pg. 315).
  25. One-word stage: The stage in speech development during which a child speaks mostly in single words (Pg. 316)
  26. Two-word stage: The stage in speech development during which a child speaks mostly two-word statements (Pg. 316).
  27. Telegraphic speech: Early speech stage in which a child speaks like a telegram using mostly nouns and verbs (Pg. 316).
  28. Linguistic determinism: Whorf’s hypothesis that language determines the way we think (Pg. 319).

Key People

  1. Noam Chomsky – A linguist that asserted that language is innate. According to Chomsky children are born with the innate ability to understand languages and that all human languages are derived from a common structure. Essentially, children will be able to develop an understanding of language no matter where they are raised, because it is a resold of a genetically determined program.
  2. Daniel Kahneman – A cognitive psychologist who conducted research on the representativeness and availability heuristics and showed how these generally helpful shortcuts can lead even the smartest of people to make dumb decisions (Pg. 303).
  3. Wolfgang Kohler – Demonstrated that humans are not the only creatures to display insight by conducting an experiment with a chimpanzee that utilized multiple tools available to obtain food out of reach (Pg. 300).
  4. Wallace Lambert – A researcher that defined bilingual advantage, which says that bilingual children, who learn to inhibit one language while using the other, are also better able to inhibit their attention (Pg. 319).
  5. Steven Pinker – A cognitive scientist who studied the importance of language in cognition. We are able to transmit thoughts by making noises; we can get people’s attention, get them to do things, and we maintain relationships, because a language contains information (Pg. 313).
  6. Dean Keith Simonton – A psychologist who noted that the most eminent thing among prominent scientists and inventors were mentored, challenged, and supported by their relationships with colleagues (Pg. 300).
  7. B.F. Skinner: Believed we can explain language and development with familiar learning principles, including association, imitation, and reinforcement. His emphasis on learning helps explain how infants acquire their language as they interact with others.
  8. Robert Sternberg: With his colleagues he has identified five components of creativity: Expertise, imaginative thinking skills, a venturesome personality, intrinsic motivation, and a creative environment.
  9. Shelley Taylor: Alongside her UCLA colleagues in 1998 she demonstrated that mental rehearsal can also help you achieve an academic goal. She did this through studying two different groups of students during the midterm exam that studied in two different ways – one visualizing the posted grades and one visualizing themselves studying.
  10. Amos Tversky: A research psychologist that, alongside Daniel Kahneman, researched the representativeness and availability heuristics. Showed that these generally helpful shortcuts can lead even the smartest people into dumb decisions.
  11. Peter Wason: In 1960, demonstrated the confirmation bias by giving British university students the three-number sequence 2-4-6 and asking them to guess the rule he had used to devise the simple. Although they were able to create their own number sets and ask him if they conformed to his rule, most students got it wrong even if they thought they were right because of his confirmation.
  12. Benjamin Lee Whorf: A linguist that contended that language determines the way we think. Formed the linguistic determinism hypothesis, which states that different languages impose different conceptions of reality.

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