What Is the Connection between Consciousness and Cognition?

M.J. Casey

Consciousness and cognition are terms used to describe certain attributes of personality or the mind. Awareness of one's surroundings, of others, and of oneself is considered to be consciousness. Cognition has multiple meanings across various disciplines. In general, cognitive abilities are those involved with remembering, thinking abstractly, or solving problems. Humans credit themselves with having both consciousness and cognition.

In the case of dolphins, consciousness and cognition are difficult to separate.
In the case of dolphins, consciousness and cognition are difficult to separate.

Testing or discerning consciousness and cognition is difficult; even unambiguous definitions are hard to come by. One sign of consciousness is the ability for self-recognition in a mirror. A baby develops this ability within about the first 18 to 24 months of life. Chimps and apes are known to have this attribute, as do dolphins and elephants.

Chimps are known to have self-recognition in a mirror, a sign of consciousness.
Chimps are known to have self-recognition in a mirror, a sign of consciousness.

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Cognition is not just neuron signaling, as occurs when a dog thinks about sitting still when told to stay. Training of that natures seems to happen on a lower level of brain activity. One could argue, however, that when a dog mopes for a missing owner, he certainly is remembering some experiences. Is he thinking about the owner actively and consciously, and is he aware of something being wrong or uncomfortable? Consciousness and cognition are difficult to separate in this case.

Elephants are known for have a strong matriarchal society.
Elephants are known for have a strong matriarchal society.

Elephants have a strong matriarchal society. Female elephants that have lost a calf will mourn the calf for years, returning to touch or caress the bones. Herds have suffered when removed from their communities. Societal exchange seems to be a part of consciousness and cognition, though not a sufficient criterion. Ants and bees, though very social, are not thought of as conscious beings.

Consciousness and cognition are thought to originate in the brain, but after years of imaging studies from around the world, definitive structures have not been identified. Rather, some diverse brain activities may be involved, which raises the question of how continuity of self-awareness is preserved as its physical site changes? One theorist, Stan Franklin of the University of Memphis, who has developed a software program to mimic consciousness, likens the link between consciousness and cognition to a two-part processing program. In the first step, the sensory system gathers data that is processed in particular areas. When sufficient data has been accumulated, it is broadcast to multiple processing locations.

Another aspect of consciousness and cognition is the observation that children assume that consciousness is continuous and without boundaries. Similar children's tales from around the world have characters transformed into animals or plants and transformed back again. An example is the frog prince who waits for a kiss from a princess to be returned to his original state. The child does not lose track of the character's identity or doubt that its existence is unbroken. This continuity is at the heart of self-consciousness.

Awareness of oneself is an aspect of consciousness.
Awareness of oneself is an aspect of consciousness.

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