What if we had to think about every single little centimeter or millimeter of every single thing that we see, every single day? We would be bombarded by so much information that it would be much too difficult for us to live our daily lives. So, how is it that we think? What is thinking?
Cognition is a big part of the process of human thinking. Cognition is all of the mental activities involved in thinking, remembering, communicating and knowing.
Like I mentioned above, it would be much too difficult to constantly focus and think about all of the things that we see and hear on a daily basis. So instead, humans form what are called concepts. Concepts are referred to as mental groupings; it’s how we group similar things together: holidays, chairs, trees, or people. When we think of trees, it could be any type of tree; a pine tree, palm tree, Christmas tree or Oak tree. If we had to stop and think about every single type of tree, we would never get anything done, which is why we simplify into the concept of a tree. Without concepts we wouldn’t be able to ask someone to pass us the ball, there would be no concept of the world ball. Without concepts we would need a different name for every single object. To further organize, we create things called hierarchies. For example, we have cities, which break down into geographical sectors, which then break down into neighborhoods, and then into blocks.
The way that we form concepts is either by definition or by creating prototypes. The way we create a concept my definition is basically by knowing the definition of something. We are taught that a square has four sides and they’re all equal… so when we see a shape with four equal sides, we know that it is a square. The more common way that we form concepts is by prototypes. We all know that a bird has wings, feathers, a beak and two feet. That is our prototype of a bird, so when we see a creature with feathers, wings, a beak and two feet we automatically know that it is a bird.
But, these aren’t the only mental shortcuts that human beings use. We all encounter tasks, problems or situations every day that need an answer. There are many ways that we can get to that answer. One way would be through trial and error. 2+x=5, we could plug in the numbers, 1,2, and 3 for x until we stop at 3 and realize that 3 is the answer. That is how we use trial and error. We also use algorithms, which are step-by-step problem solving procedures. Like a manual on how to work a new electronic gadget or even a recipe. However, algorithms can be very time consuming, so in order to save time we use heuristics. Although heuristics can save us time, they are more prone to error. Instead of reading the manual step-by-step we do what we know, but not ever electronic gadget works the same way. Sometimes, we don’t even use any type of problem solving strategy; sometimes the answer just comes to us. When we have that sudden realization it is called an insight.
However, problem solving can often get us in a dizzy. We may tend to circle around the correct answer. We tend to search for information that confirms what we already know or believe, this is known as the confirmation bias. We, also, tend to have difficulty viewing a problem from a new perspective, or thinking outside of the box. This phenomenon is known as fixation. Within fixation we get stuck in mental sets, where we continue to approach problems in the same way, usually in a way that has worked in the past.
However, without all of the shortcuts that humans use, there would be too much for us to take in. Although, not everything that we do mentally is fool proof, it makes life a lot simpler. It’s even more amazing to think that we do all of these things without even trying. Our brain does these things automatically.
Myers, G. David (2009) Exploring Psychology (8th Ed.) New York, NY: Worth Publishers