Simply stated, cognition is the ability to think. It goes beyond the recollection of facts to consider how a person learns and then uses his or her knowledge. Cognition enables the individual to make sense of what he or she sees, hears and feels so that he or she can react appropriately, plan ahead and learn from his or her mistakes. For example, if a man touches an electric fence, he will instinctively avoid that area unless he needs to pass through it for an important reason, such as to save someone. In that case, his cognitive abilities will enable him to make a plan to attempt to safely bypass the fence and reach the person.
Cognition can be broken down into three critical elements: the ability to identify salient features in a situation, the organization of past experience or new information into a plan or idea and the ability to make decisions, evaluations or judgments. Each of these features builds upon the previous. This means that judgments and decisions are often based on either past experience or a careful analysis of the situation — or both — and a person's perceptions of the past experience are based on his or her memory of important elements.
The first step in cognition is awareness and the ability to focus on the key features in a situation. For example, at a busy street corner, a woman might need to decide which elements are the most important to focus on: the traffic light, the movement of cars, her ringing cell phone or the pain in her left foot. All of these might be very important, but prioritizing them is an essential cognitive task if she is to cross the street safely. Awareness is a very early developmental task because further cognitive development depends on it. When a person is aware, the ability to focus becomes essential in order for that person to gather and process information.
After a person chooses the elements on which to focus, he or she uses that information to form a plan or outline an idea. The person might assemble new information into a solution for a problem, such as using new data to propose a new medicine, or he or she might use the ability to focus to analyze a situation and see where a problem exists. In either case, formulating the plan is dependent on the person's ability to accurately select the salient features in the situation and to decide which data points to combine to create a solution or which elements in a situation might be problematic.
Making a decision or critically analyzing a situation or idea often provides the final cognitive step. Although a decision might be the final outcome, the thought process for many people is fluid. As a result, the critical analysis part of cognition often includes reevaluation of salient features and adjustments to the proposed plan of action. Ultimately, cognition is a dynamic process in which individuals continually assess and evaluate new information, decide whether action is necessary, evaluate that action and then reassess as needed.