It is very frequent that when some aspect of the psyche is discussed, whether it is from psychology or from other sciences such as medicine, the concept of “cognitive process” arises at some point .

This is a widely used term and sometimes it is not well known what it refers to, which can be confusing. In fact, sometimes difficulties may arise in determining what is or is not such a process. That is why in this article we explain what a cognitive process is and we present some of the most relevant ones in our daily functioning.

Conceptualizing: what are cognitive processes?

Cognitive processes are understood as all those mental operations that we perform in a more or less sequential way in order to obtain some kind of mental product. It is about each one of the operations that we carry out that allow us to capture, codify, store and work with the information coming from the outside as well as from the inside.

All and every one of the cognitive processes we carry out are fundamental when it comes to achieving our adaptation to the social environment, and even our survival, through their influence on behaviour. We have to think that every physical or mental act that we carry out, from picking up a piece of cutlery to singing in the shower, to kissing someone or simply writing this article assumes that we have processed a series of information and that we are operating with it.

One aspect to keep in mind is that cognitive process and emotion are generally considered to be separate. However, it is possible to observe that in the processing of information has a great importance the emotional activation , since it contributes to give a meaning to the experience and it is fundamental at the time of processing the information and valuing it. It is for this reason that under this perspective it could be considered that it forms part of these cognitive processes.

Types of cognitive processes

There is a large number of cognitive processes, but broadly speaking they could be divided into two typologies: basic and superior.

Basic cognitive processes

The basic cognitive processes serve as the basis for the subsequent elaboration and processing of information . They are those that allow information to be captured and maintained in our system in order to work with it.


Sometimes separated into sensation and perception, this type of basic cognitive process is what allows information to be processed by our system. We capture sensations through the different receptors that we have in our organism and later perceive them by organizing the information of the receptors and giving it a meaning.

Within this category we would include among other aspects the perceptive analysis and organization and the reception of information.


Attention is the cognitive process that allows human beings to select, focus and maintain their mental resources in a given stimulation, to stop dedicating them or to separate the resources. There are different types of attention , including focused or sustained, divided, voluntary or involuntary, overt or covert.

Information processing

Closely linked to attention and perception, information processing is one of the basic cognitive processes which allows us to process the information captured and to become elaborated.

In this sense, we must take into account the existence of automatic (involuntary and with little interference with other processes) and controlled processing (which require a certain level of mental effort), serial (sequential) and parallel (several processes are carried out at the same time), bottom-up (we start from the stimulation to generate the processing) and top-down (expectations lead us to process the stimulation) and global or local (depending on whether we first capture the totality or the details of the stimulation).


Another of the basic processes, memory plays a fundamental role in cognition since it allows the previously perceived information to be maintained in the system and to work with it in both the short and long term .

Within the memory we can find the declarative (within which we find the autobiographical and the procedural) and the non-declarative (such as the procedural memory). It also includes the working memory , an essential element that allows us to work with the information gathered at present or to recover elements of the long-term memory.

Superior cognitive processes

They are considered as cognitive processes superior to those that suppose the maximum level of information integration, being processes that are derived from the union of the information coming from diverse sensorial modalities and basic cognitive processes. They are often conscious and require mental effort to perform them.


The main and best known higher cognitive process is thought. In it we integrate all the information and from it we perform different mental operations. It allows us to form concepts, elaborate judgments and deductions and learn . Some of the types of thinking we can find are inductive, deductive and hypothetical-deductive reasoning. Within thinking, we include both the capacity of representation and symbolization and the analysis and integration of information, as well as the making of inferences.

Executive functions

Although they could be incorporated as part of thinking or be separated into different basic processes, the set of executive functions allows us to manage behaviour and the set of cognitive processes through the implementation of different skills such as behavioural inhibition, planning or decision making among many others. These are, therefore, functions that allow the orientation of behaviour towards medium- and long-term goals and that prevent urgent impulses from taking control of behaviour.


The ability to learn is largely derived from the ability to pay attention to the stimulation and then store it in memory for later retrieval.


Language is considered a superior cognitive process, which in addition to communicating with the environment and our peers is used to internally regulate our behavior (through self-instruction). It is important to bear in mind that we are not only talking about oral language, but also about other types of communication .

However, it is important to note that language is not the same as thought. This has been known from empirical evidence in people with aphasia, that is, they have destroyed and non-operational brain structures responsible for language.


Creativity is considered by some authors as a superior cognitive process, since it involves the elaboration of new strategies or ways of thinking and away from what has been learned and acquired through experience.

Thus, the cognitive processes that belong to the field of creativity are those that escape the conventional routes of thought, those that from an image or an intuition turn an idea around and, from there, create something new.


It is the cognitive process by which we link and dedicate our energy to a particular company, relating cognition, emotion and arousal. Thanks to it we can direct our behavior and it can facilitate or hinder the acquisition or processing of information. We can also find different types of motivation, such as intrinsic and extrinsic.

Behavioral criticism

It is important that not all of the field of psychology accepts the existence of cognitive processes. In particular, many variants of the behaviorism paradigm point out that they are, at most, a metaphor for what actually happens. For these behaviorist perspectives, what we call mental processes are in any case attributes to internal mental phenomena that in theory explain part of what psychology really explains (or should explain): behavior, understood as relationships between stimuli and actions that can be modified through training or learning.

Thus, for behaviorism the concept of mental process is an unnecessary leap of faith , since it is not necessary to assume that there are private psychological processes that generate from the inside out the behavior we can observe.

Bibliographic references:

  • Blomberg, O. (2011). “Concepts of cognition for cognitive engineering”. International Journal of Aviation Psychology. 21 (1): 85 – 104.
  • T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. “Unit 7: Memory.” p. 126
  • Von Eckardt, Barbara (1996). What is cognitive science?. Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 45 – 72.