What is more important than our brain? The brain is the organ of thoughts, emotions, logic, sense of humor, movement control, sensations, and many other great things. Our brain is also the conductor of our hormonal activity and holds a tight relationship with our immune system. Surely, if we want to be healthy, we are obliged to keep our brain healthy and maximize its functioning for as long as possible.
From its elevated position as the chief of the nervous system, the brain weights less than 2 kg, yet it consumes about 20% of the blood to efficiently and quickly activate billions of nerve cells interconnected in a large-scale complex networks. Although our understanding of the way the brain works is slowly growing, the wisdom of the brain and its efficiency never cease to surprise us and evoke new research questions. In this article, we will get to know the basic cognitive functions and understand why it is important to be aware of our cognitive state.
What is cognition?
Cognition is our consciousness, or in other words, the accumulation of processes that allow us to perceive, process, know, remember, and act consciously in the world. The study of cognition started to gain recognition in the 1950s with the growing interest in human behavior. Most studies about cognition in the last 30 years combine behavioral measurement with brain imaging tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology (EEG) to explain cognition not only through human behavior but through real-time brain processes underlying this behavior.
What is attention?
It is not enough that something happens around us, such as a sudden noise or a brief movement, and that our system perceives what is happening in our surrounding; if we are not attentive, we will not be aware of this happening. When we are asleep or when we are over-focused on a certain task, we are not available to pay attention to our environment. For example, driving the car in such as way could be very dangerous for you and others.
Attention is a basic cognitive function, and its role is to bring the information perceived though our senses to be fully processed and consciously recognized (this is the sound of my phone or this is my son’s face). If something distracts us, if we are too busy or not available to respond to the environment, what is happening around us will not be fully processed in the brain and we will not be able to report whether it indeed happened.
What is working memory?
Working memory is necessary for remembering what was in the conversation a moment ago (he told me about his sick mother), what we are looking for (where is the key?), where we are indicated to go (second floor, room 203), what document we are asked to send (ID or passport?), the pin code we need to login into the website (# 4891) or how to cook the recipe we just read online (salt, pepper, garlic and basil). Working memory is the basis for short-term memory, and then for properly encoding the information and preserving it for long-term.
It is important to note that there is a critical connection between attention and memory. If we are not attentive, information will not get into our working memory. Imagine that you must remember several items (cream cheese, cottage cheese, soy milk, cheddar) that you need to buy in the dairy department and while doing so, someone repeatedly calls your name (Rachel, Rachel, Rachel, Rachel…). Hearing your name interferes with memorizing the items and when you get to the dairy department, you do not recall all the items because your attention was automatically allocated elsewhere upon hearing your name.
What is learning?
Perception, attention and memory all together allow us to learn many things. For example, learning new words in a second language (“Garnicht” is nothing in German and Yiddish), to identify plants and name them (it’s a ficus, it’s an orchid…), to cook a new dish for lunch (meat in chestnuts from Gordon Ramsey’s new book, takes about an hour to prepare and was very tasty) , to drive to a new location or update an existing driving route because there were changes at the interchange.
Learning takes place according to known principles. As we learn to play the piano or speak a foreign language, we need to persist, repeat it again and again, and practice every day. If we are motivated and we take learning as a positive experience, then learning is even enhanced. For example, in order to maintain our body, we take a walk every day or several times a week – knowing how to walk is not enough, practicing is the thing. What we don’t frequently do, nor use, is lost, like some information we have not retrieved for a long time. And if something bothers us to walk, it is important that we take care of it as soon as possible and not let it turn into handicap.
Why is all this important to know?
If we know how our brain works, we will understand ourselves better. For example, if we are more visually oriented, then we remember better the studied material for the exam when we summarize the textbooks with notes instead of listening to lectures. If we are gifted with associative thinking, we will flourish when performing tasks which require exploration and creativity and will suffer when performing tasks which require logical and deductive thinking. Additionally, it is important to identify what works better for us in terms of practice; do we need to practice a little every day or maybe practice twice a week for a longer time? in addition to practicing, shall we challenge ourselves in diverse ways? how to encourage ourselves to practice? what feedback will help us keep up the practice?
If we understand the changes that occur in our brain as we grow older, it means we are more sensitive to ourselves; we detect the changes quickly, we check with those who are close to us, and look for solutions. Indeed, current studies show that people who are unaware of their cognitive state, tend to be more cognitively impaired. Therefore, it is important to expand our knowledge of the brain, increase our awareness and pay more attention.