“Cognition refers  to the mechanisms by which animals acquire, process, store, and act on information from the environment.  These include perception, learning, memory, and decision making” (Shettlesworth 1998:5)[1]


This definition is so broad that some scholars think it advisable to limit its meaning to specific aspects of knowledge manipulation (e.g., McFarland 1991 cited by Shettlesworth 1998). But I am not sure if the definition is broad enough, since it is not only information from the environment that an organism acts upon –at least not at several of the levels of organization with which we are concerned [note: reasoning and thinking at multiple levels of organization is a source of great mischief, and an issue because of the confusion caused by reasoning involving multiple levels simultaneously.  Thinking about the connections of (for example) cause and consequence are so vastly below (or above) human competence for reason that they cannot be discussed except in metaphysical terms.  This is part of the sometimes bitter conflict between the real versus the ideal:  sentiments that emerge when people are at or near the end of their competence]



Knowing one’s own mind sometimes seems like the tip of an iceberg –those mental processes accessible to reflection (“metacognition”), but inferring the mind of others is understandable daunting– yet our development enables this by means of a “theory of mind.”

It allows us to ask, how we can understand what an artifact could communicate to us.  We assume that somehow the minds of artists are embodied in their artifacts. We can ask “what were they thinking?” This might help us infer, “what were they trying to say?” if indeed they were making intentional efforts to communicate. (What we perceive as art might be unintentional on the part of its creator.) And further, considering the ancient minds that created Paleolithic art, this can inform our understanding of the evolution of cognitive competencies (A&O notes on Theory of Mind)




“… the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, as George Lakoff and Rafeal Nez explain:


 Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.


What exactly does this mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world.”   (McNerny 2011)[2]


 DEEP COGNITION:  of course, features of cognition are diverse and distributed.  They have evolved over the generations conforming to broad outlines and develop within each individual in conformance with the social and physical environments into which the individual is born and matures.   In moment-to-moment functioning, the coordination of cognitive traits can be more-or-less reconfigured more-or-less physiological stress.  

STRESS.  In research on social dominance I observed the subordinates have higher levels of specific stress hormones and changed susceptibilities to surges in other hormones associated with stress.   Thinking about the known influences of these hormones on function of specific parts of the brain I inventoried the diversity of stress hormone effects on cognitive functions: see Table 1 at “Ethological Causes and Consequences of the Stress Response” (Greenberg et al. 2002).  

A recent article on stress and cognition that will underscore and extend my own findings is at an editorial on STRESS and COGNITION


[1] Sara J. Shettlesworth (1998) Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

[2] Samuel McNerney A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain.  Scientific American Blog November 4, 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/