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What Is the Connection between Learning and Cognition?

By Megan Shoop
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Learning and cognition are inextricably intertwined, but not necessarily interchangeable. The process of learning includes experiencing new information. Cognition involves absorbing that information and applying it to the appropriate situations. These two functions of the brain are much like a yin-yang symbol or a weight balance, without one side, the other is incomplete. Learning is necessary to feed cognition, and cognitive processes are essential to applying the learned information to previously learned skills, as well as to future situations.

The process of learning can be observed in almost any living creature. A domesticated cat, for instance, might like to scratch a particular piece of furniture. The cat’s owner may try to prevent this by fixing the furniture and spraying it with citrus or bitter apple spray. When the cat approaches the furniture, he or she will likely sniff the piece. Bitter apple and citrus are scents cats usually don’t like, so the cat will quickly learn that his or her favorite scratching place smells unpleasant.

Once this new information is learned, cognition comes into play by helping the cat apply the information to future situations. In this case, when the cat learns that the furniture smells unpleasant, cognitive process will cause him or her to avoid that piece of furniture. The cat absorbed the information and used it to his or her advantage. Learning and cognition may also be used to continue patterns the cat finds pleasant. If the owner rubs a scratching post with catnip, the cat may use the above learning and cognition process to discover that scratching the post is a pleasant experience.

Sometimes, the connection between learning and cognition may be blocked. This is often evident in thinking-challenged individuals, such as those with reading disabilities. For instance, an individual may be able to learn the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, but be unable to string them together to read or write words. In this case, the sufferer can experience information but cannot apply it using cognitive processes.

Fortunately, bridging the gap between learning and cognition may be done with specific teaching techniques. In the above situation, a teacher might coach the reading-disabled individual through a set of small words, helping him or her sound out each letter. As the student progresses, he or she will learn to read longer and more complicated words, and may eventually be asked to write sentences and short essays. Learning and cognition almost always exist in every brain, but sometimes need some coaching to help them connect.

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Discussion Comments

By ddljohn — On Dec 04, 2014

@stoneMason-- I think the description of cognition that's easiest to understand is that cognition is learning skills. So it's not the act of learning but rather the skills that allow us to learn. So yes, cognition is the ability to understand through our sense perceptions and experiences.

There are slightly different ways to explain learning but it's basically an acquirement of knowledge that changes our behavior. So we not only attain this knowledge but we also use it to shape our thoughts, decisions and actions.

So if we sum this up, we need cognition for learning.

By stoneMason — On Dec 03, 2014

I still don't get the difference between learning and cognition. They really sound like the same thing. Cognition is understanding knowledge and so is learning. So maybe we shouldn't think of these as separate and interrelated, but really the same process.

By bear78 — On Dec 03, 2014

I love the cat example in this article. Sometimes watching animals can be a great way to understand learning processes. The same with babies and small children. It's so interesting to see how they learn and process information.

My cat uses her learning and cognition skills very effectively. She has to take anti-parasitic medication every three months. She learned the scent of the medication and what comes after she sniffs it, after only the second time we gave it to her. Now, when we even remove the pill from the package, she knows and she goes into hiding in the house. Sometimes she doesn't come out the whole day because she knows very well that she has to take a bad tasting medication!

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