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A cognitive model is an attempt to create a process, usually on a computer, that simulates the way humans think. In some cases this can be designed with the aim of learning more about computing. In most cases, though, the aim is to learn more about how human minds work and ways to treat medical and psychological conditions related to the thought process.
The cognitive model is based around cognition, the study of how animals learn and process information and then decide upon actions. In most cases, this involves the study of humans, partly for the obvious self-interest and partly because humans appear to have the most advanced cognition skills of any animal. One of the main issues in cognition study is the contrast between the cognitive skills that appear to be in place at birth, and those that develop through a learning process such as language.
Studying cognition in terms of computers shows some of the key differences between the human brain and the computer. A computer can process information much more quickly than a human, but can only carry out defined tasks. A human brain can process information and then make decisions or judgments.
A researcher using a cognitive model is attempting to simulate this human process on a computer. In effect, the researcher will be attempting to answer one of two questions. Can a computer be designed to process information and make decisions in a more sophisticated manner? And can the way the brain operates be reduced to a logical system that can be recreated in a way we can understand?
The cognitive model works in contrast to another element of artificial intelligence study, the cognitive architecture. The cognitive model attempts to recreate how the brain can carry out a particular task such as learning or making decisions. The cognitive architecture attempts to recreate the overall structure and operation of the brain, and the limits this places on each cognitive model.
There are some uses of cognitive models that don't relate directly to the brain. For example, a model could simulate the way information flows throughout an organization and how that organization as a whole makes decisions. Trying to simulate the structure of the organization in this way may uncover ways in which it could be made to operate more efficiently or productively.