Where does cognition reside?

Where does cognition reside? Or is this not a valid question for scientists to be asking? For comparison, I know that the engine makes my car drive, and I know where this engine is located. A car mechanic could explain more precisely what it does and how it does that. He could point out each pipe, cylinder, and wire, and state their exact function. Is such a one-to-one mapping between a cognitive function and a specific ‘wire’ or ‘location’ possible in psychology as well? Or is this not a worthwhile goal to be pursuing?

Asking where cognition resides is just as scientifically meaningless as asking where the weather is located.

I think it is not, at least not in a straightforward and useful way. Asking where cognition resides is just as scientifically meaningless as asking where the weather is located. The weather is here and now, just as it is present everywhere and at every moment across the planet. In the same sense cognition is here and now, just as it is present everywhere and at every moment distributed across a person’s body, brain and environment.

Cognition’s resemblance with the weather

Things like cognition and weather, unlike the engine of a car, are not a single concrete thing. Weather refers to the phenomenological experience of a collection of meteorological aspects like humidity, wind, temperature, clouds versus sunshine, air pressure and more, which all constantly change. Something similar is true for cognition. Cognition also is a collection of things, which are not even directly observable or measurable. Very generally, cognition refers to the ability of people to interact with the world. In other words: all the things that enable us to attune to the objects, events, and people surrounding us. Cognitive functions are said to involve the well-known capacities to have thoughts and comprehend stuff, to remember, reason, talk, read, plan and so on. However, also the body’s ability to walk, sit and grasp things, and continuously adapt our behavior in a changing environment is part of cognition. In comparison, although a car engine might be a highly sophisticated piece of equipment, it does not even come close to cognition (or the weather) in terms of its complexity. That is to say, for cognition not only the number of constituting parts and degree of interconnectivity are vastly superior, but more importantly, its resulting variety in appearance, multi-functionality, and flexibility is unparalleled by anything man-made.

The concerthall of cognition

So in light of this, where could something like cognition reside? Often cognition is thought to function as an orchestra where individual cognitive processes (musicians) are responsible for individual cognitive functions (instruments), to use yet another metaphor. Much research attention has been given to identifying these processes in increasing variety and detail. Moreover, since for many psychologists, scientists and practitioners alike, the brain is the (concert)hall of cognition, the identification of cognitive processes has gone hand-in-hand with the search for corresponding brain areas, networks or neural pathways. That this is a very powerful and widespread idea is illustrated by the search for the ‘reli kwab’, the brain center for religious experience, or the ‘murder module’ in the brain (of course no such things exist).

Understanding cognition as being complex

An alternative way of looking at this comes from complexity science. Let us return to the weather again for a moment. It seems silly to assume that a similar reasoning is possible in that case as well. The weather results from the collection of things given above. Wind, sunshine, air pressure and so on together constitute the weather, but none of them is the weather though. Also, none of them resides in a single location. On the contrary, all of them are distributed across the planet, and their interconnection determine the patterns of weather. Similarly abilities like, remembering, thinking, walking and so on constitute cognition. However, cognition is not equal to each of them, and none of these abilities can be (or need to be) associated to a single cognitive process performed by a specific part of the brain.

Insights from complexity science, which apply to weather and cognition alike, make us reconsider this search for specific brain parts altogether. This contemporary approach to psychology highlights that cognition is dominated by interactions rather than by components. Interaction dominance refers to the realization that cognition and behavior emerge from the interactions between many non-specific processes distributed across a person’s brain, body and environment. This in sharp contrast to a set of highly specialized components, each solely performing a single function and located at a specific location. Several recent studies have demonstrated that interaction dominance is a powerful and promising novel way of understanding psychology and psychopathology (see links provided below). At least it is a way of understanding cognition that more closely reflects the fact that humans are part of the natural systems.


Relevant Links and Publications

Wijnants, M. L., Hasselman, F., Cox, R. F. A., Bosman, A. M. T., & Van Orden, G. (2012). An interaction-dominant perspective on reading fluency and dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 62, 100–119. doi:10.1007/s11881-012-0067-3

Lichtwarck-Aschoff, A., Hasselman, F., Cox, R., Pepler, D., & Granic, I. (2012). A Characteristic Destabilization Profile in Parent-Child Interactions Associated with Treatment Efficacy for Aggressive Children. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and the Life Sciences, 16(3), 353–379.

Cox, R. F. A., & van Dijk, M. (2013). Microdevelopment in Parent-Child Conversations: From Global Changes to Flexibility. Ecological Psychology, 25(3), 304–315. doi:10.1080/10407413.2013.810095


NOTE: Image by Wonderlane, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Ralf Cox graduated in Cognitive Science. He received his doctoral degree at the Radboud University Nijmegen for his research on the development of young children’s action selection in goal-directed behavior. His current research area is developmental psychology from the perspective of complex dynamical systems, with special emphasis on perception-action coupling and embedded embodied cognition in developmental processes.

For a list of Ralf’s publications, visit his ResearchGate profile, here.

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