A recent discussion with my doctoral students in a seminar on cognitive psychology returned me to my oft-repeated critique of the core of psychology. The problem of psychology, as I refer to it, is that the field has massive difficulties with its basic definitions, concepts, and categories. The reason why is easy enough to understand if you take a historical view. At psychology’s birth, there were no good philosophical (read: metaphysical) systems that allowed psychologists to develop the appropriate concepts and categories for their subject matter. It is a problem needs to be solved if psychology is ever going to become a real science (see here). In line with this critique, this blog offers a conceptual analysis of the word cognitive. It demonstrates that the word is muddled in modern psychology and explains how to get the (metaphysics of the) word right.

In everyday usage, cognitive (or cognition) refers to specific kinds of “higher” mental processes, such as thoughtful deliberation, logical analysis, and problem-solving. In such folk terminology, the term clearly is different from other “mental processes”, such as sensation or emotion or felt intuition. But if we look at the basic definitions in the field of cognitive psychology, this is not at all what we find. As Wikipedia notes, the most foundational definition of the term comes from Niesser (1967), who defined cognitive as referring to processes where: “the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations….[C]ognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon”.

A more recent textbook on Cognitive Psychology makes basically the same point. These authors write that “Psychology is generally defined as the science of mental processes and behavior. Cognitive Psychology could be defined by eliminating the last two words of that definition—the scientific study of mental processes.” (It is worth noting that, despite this broad definition, the topics covered in the book do not include analyses of sensation or emotion.)

The point here is that there is a “folk” definition of cognitive and a more technical definition used by cognitive psychology. The former is much narrower (e.g., higher thought processes) than the latter (e.g., the whole of neuro-mental information processing). So, that is confusing. The confusion is only enhanced when we consider the fields of cognitive psychology versus cognitive science, cognitive psychotherapy, and cognitive assessment (i.e., intelligence and achievement functioning). I will spare you the details of all the ways the term tends to be used (and misused).

To see the core of the confusion and how it is relevant for the field of psychology, we need to go philosophical because there remain two fundamentally different philosophies about psychology’s approach to its subject matter. One is the “cognitivist” approach. This is the idea that there is a latent, unobservable entity or force called “the mind” that causes overt behavior.  In contrast, there is the “behaviorist” approach, which is the position that anything that people would normally call or attribute to the mind (either inside or outside the body), is in fact, “behavior”. Although now clearly a minority, this position remains viable and there are still introductory psychology textbooks that define psychology as the science of behavior—no reference to “mental processes” needed for these folks.

This remains an unresolved, foundational issue in the field. Most mainstream introductory texts, such as David Myer’s popular books, offer a compromise of the two positions and define psychology as the science of behavior and mental processes. Myers defines behavior is anything an organism does—anything we can observe and record. He defines mental processes as the internal, subjective experiences inferred from behavior—things like sensations, perceptions, dreams, thoughts, beliefs and feelings.

This might sound like it is a straightforward distinction, but a little reflection reveals that it is anything but. To see why, let’s use these definitions and consider two people, Joe and Sally, having a conversation. Joe has the perceptual, subjective experience of seeing Sally behave. For Joe, the world that he “observes” flows through his mental processes. This includes Sally’s behavior. Now let’s flip this around, and consider it from Sally’s point of view. From Sally’s position, she has the perceptual experience of seeing Joe behave, from which she infers his mental processes.

This simple thought exercise highlights (at least) two serious problems with Myer’s definition. First, Joe and Sally do not observe their own behavior and then infer their own mental processes. That is absurd. Rather their observations of external behavior reside in the field of their subjective mental processes (i.e., their sensations, perceptions, feelings, and beliefs).

Second, this analysis reveals that with Myers’ definitions, what gets classified as behavior versus mental processes is dependent upon who is doing the observing. Joe’s subjective, mental experiences include his observations of Sally’s behavior (and inferences of her mental processes), whereas Sally’s subjective experiences include her observations of Joe’s behavior (and inferences of his mental processes). In other words, the meanings of “behavior” and “mental processes” are dependent on the observer and change if we are talking about the world from Joe’s or Sally’s perspective.    

Given how easy it is to demonstrate that this is very confusing if we think about it, we can ask if Myer’s spends any time in his 101 texts addressing this issue. The answer is no. He simply goes on to comment that the most important thing for students to realize is that psychologists are scientists that empirically study behavior and mental processes. Forgive me, but I thought scientists were advocates for clear thinking.

Let’s pause and review because this is a central point to understand what is wrong with the core of psychology. It is more important than the replication crisis, or anything else that pulls at the integrity of the field. The reason is because the concepts of behavior and mental processes are the most central conceptual categories for psychology. This brief synopsis shows that there are cognitive psychologists who define cognitive as essentially synonymous with the mental. And because for them the mental causes behavior, cognitive is essentially synonymous with all of psychology (e.g., Neisser’s definition). In direct contrast, there are the radical behaviorists who argue that there is just behavior and that it is psychology’s subject matter. And there is the common 101 view, which is to combine the two in an ineffective way, such that one person’s behavior is another person’s mental process.

Starting with a Clear Map of Reality

As those who are familiar with my work know, I offer the Tree of Knowledge System as the needed map to solve these (metaphysical) problems. The ToK both incorporates insights from modern science and a big history view of the universe AND offers a taxonomy of behavioral complexity that allows us to get clear about what is going on. I am not going into the details of the system here, but instead, I am going to show how to map reality in a way that is grounded in the ToK. I will then return to our question about how to define cognitive and show how we can now clearly understand both what the broad definition of cognitive means, and the more narrow definition. The scene is an everyday event, where you are looking at someone looking, interacting with and commenting on a table. Take a minute and look over the map and see if you agree it captures the basic domains.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Now let me quickly divide this map up into the four dimensions of complexity that are delineated by the ToK, which are Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. Here they are in Gray, Green, Red and Blue.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

After sharing this depiction for clarity, I do feel compelled to note that, technically, the relationship between the dimensions is that of a “nested hierarchy”, such that Culture resides within Mind which resides within Life which resides within Matter. Here is a simple diagram that captures what I mean by this claim. With this basic definitional background, we can now return to the issues at hand and begin to sort them out.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Psychology as the Science of Mental Behavior

In the language of the ToK System, everything is behavior, which means it is silly to think of psychology as THE science of behavior (if any science is THE science of behavior, it is physics, not psychology). But the ToK also means that it is silly to think of “the mind” as a form of “non-behavior” (whatever that would mean). Instead of this nonsense, the ToK argues that psychology is a science that is interested in describing and explaining a particular kind of behavior. Specifically, psychologists are interested in MENTAL behavior. Mental behavior is the red domain and consists of both behaviors inside the nervous system (aka “cognition”) and behaviors between the animal and the environment (overt action).

This frame thus allows us to resolve the cognitive versus behavioral battles that have taken place since the inception of the field. Psychology is not about either mental processes (as the pure cognitivists claim) OR behavior (as the radical behaviorists claim). It is not even about mental processes AND behavior, as Myers’ 101 awkward solution suggests. Rather it is about mental behavior (or mental behavioral processes, if you prefer), which is a clearly specifiable dimension of behavioral complexity.

But what about the fact that mental versus behavior has been such a robust debate and dichotomy? Isn’t there something to that? Yes, there is, and we can see what it is by returning to issue of what is meant by “cognitive” and see how our new system can make sense out of the old. First, let’s consider the broad definition of cognitive, which is Neisser’s idea that “cognitive” refers to neuro-information processing. As we do, we will add on key aspects of human mental behavior that will then allow us to understand what the word “cognitive” refers to in more common or everyday language.

The Nervous System as an Information Processing System

The most basic operating model of the nervous system is that it functions as an information processing system. The core ingredients of an information processing system involves “input” mechanisms that translate some event into the system, computational mechanisms that combine informational inputs with additional stored information to make “decisions” (broadly defined), and an output mechanism that translates the signals into some action outside the system. Your thermostat is a simple example of such a system. It has an input mechanism (i.e., it measures the temperature), a control mechanism with stored informational reference points (i.e., the temp you set), and an output mechanism that acts on the external environment (i.e., the switch that turns on heat or A/C).  

The Nervous System as the Organ of Behavior (or Action)

This basic model maps directly onto the core structure of the nervous system. First, it has afferent neurons that translate external changes into inputs (i.e., the language of neuronal signals). Second, it is structured as a hierarchy of computational control systems that integrate these inputs with decision type rules. Finally, it has efferent neurons that plug into muscles that operate in the external environment (BTW, external here means external to the nervous system, which includes stuff in the body, like digestion or the heart).

With this basic model, we are beginning to see the “cognitive portion”, broadly defined. The broad definition of “cognitive” references the functional information embedded in and processed by the nervous system. Furthermore, with this model, we can see why the nervous system can be called the “organ of behavior”, in that it is the control system that coordinates the actions of the animal as a whole.

From Neuro-Computation and Action to Experiential Consciousness

We are making progress, but we are not done. A thermostat does not feel the cold or see that the room needs to be heated. It is a “zombie” (the philosophical term for entities that have no inner experience). Likewise, animals like jellyfish that have no brain are also likely “zombies”. At some point in the evolution of the brain (likely with the fishes, certainly by the time of mammals), the waves of neuronal activity create a “global workspace”, giving rise to the capacity to have a basic conscious experience of the world. When we say Joe sees Sally and vice versa, this is what we are referring to. Likewise, this is what is depicted by the small table in the “subjective theater of experience” in the map of reality shared above.

Importantly, scientists are getting very close in clearly identifying the waves of neuro-information processing that gives rise to human perceptual experience. For example, Dehaene and others have located a “P3” wave that they argue is the signature of perceptual consciousness in humans. It refers to an avalanche of neuronal activity, especially between the parietal and frontal lobes, which is closely associated with conscious access of perceptual events that occurs approximately 300 milliseconds after exposure to novel perceptual stimuli. This event seems to “ignite” perceptual experience in the global neuronal workspace that we can reference and report on in our theater of experience.

From Experiential Conscious to Language

We are making progress, but we are still not quite there in sorting out all the issues. Human mental behaviors are characterized by yet another remarkable capacity, one you are engaged in right now as you read this blog. We talk and, more recently in human history, we read and write. That is, unlike other animals, humans have a remarkable capacity to symbolically tag the objects and the transformations in our experiential consciousness and share them in semantic form with others. Grammatically, we can recognize the objects as nouns and the transformations as verbs. As depicted in the map of reality above, if we speak English, we can directly observe someone say, “I see the table”.

Language has a remarkable effect on human mental systems because it opens up a highway for direct communication between subjective experiential selves. That is, language allows for us humans to be truly and explicitly “intersubjective” (other animals only have indirect action capacities to share their subjective experiences of being). Via connecting experiential consciousness systems directly, human language gives rise to a whole new level of social organization, human culture (Culture with a capital “C” in the metaphysics of the ToK). Human Culture has evolved because it allows for sharing information across the generations, and allows for explicit logical reasoning and for much higher capacities for self-reflection. It is like a whole, additional collective mind that resides on top of the primary primate mind.

With these basic ingredients for mapping human mental behavior, we can return to the map of reality and clearly identify these four domains.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

In particular, we can see that the broad definition of “cognitive” as neuro-information processing as underlying and connecting and mediating the other three domains of overt action, experiential consciousness, and verbal thought.

The Final Piece: Returning to the Folk Definition of Cognitive

In understanding the broad view of neuro-information processing, we have gone from very basic reflexive type processing to more perceptual emotional type processing to verbal reflective thought. Now let me ask for an intuitive reaction to the question: which one sounds the most “cognitive”? It probably will not take much reflection to note that the first sounds the least cognitive, the second sounds “maybe” cognitive, and the third definitely is cognitive. Consistent with this intuitive sense of the word, the historical root of the word means “to know”, usually verbal propositional knowledge (e.g., logic), but also knowing in perceptual ways (e.g., seeing). A behavioral reflex would generally not be a “cognitive” concept in folk language (although it is debatable in terms of being an example of basic neuro-information processing). In other words, the folk psychological meaning does make sense, given a modern understanding of human mental architecture.


The ultimate message here is that the field of psychology needs a metaphysical “do over." It got started at a time when there was no map of the concepts and categories up to the task of getting clear about its subject matter. This fact about the field needs to be broadly acknowledged. In acknowledging this, it means we need to search for metaphysical maps of the territory that are both consistent with modern science and actually make sense of foundational terms like cognitive, mental, consciousness, and behavior. Unfortunately, the current culture of psychology is such that the mere sight of the words like “metaphysics” result in either eyes glazing over in confusion or rejection stemming from a deep-seated fear of philosophizing without data. We should not be deterred, but simply see this kneejerk conditioned (cognitive?) reflex as being indicative of just how much work there is to be done.

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