What is cognition?
From an emergent systems perspective, cognition refers to the processes by which we act, feel, and think in the world. It is essentially a question of how we process information at three cognitive levels of scale: information about the physical world (Perception), information about relationships in the world (Association), and information about the relationships among relationships (Conceptualization). This definition integrates key elements of embodied, situational, and symbolic approaches to cognition.
In more colloquial terms, we are playing with the idea of cognition as a function of the body, heart, mind, and possibly even spirit. I use these terms playfully and as a creative frame of reference for further exploration of the primary themes of cognition as an emergent system for processing information.
Cognition a function of the body
It is through the body that we are able to sense everything that is around and within us, from the warmth of the sun to the movements of our muscles. Perception, as a kind of body cognition, involves the processing by which we generate cognitive representations of information in the physical world. For example, looking at an apple produces our perception of the apple we see; this is how we know what the apple looks like.
Cognition a function of the heart
If the first level is sensing, then the second level is feeling, a property typically attributed to the heart. The cardiovascular system also connects and supplies nutrients to every living cell in our bodies. Association, as a kind of heart cognition, involves the processing by which we generate cognitive representations of relationships among our perceptions. For example, based on our prior experience, the visual perception of an apple activates a network of other perceptions associated with apples; this is how we know what the apple probably feels, smells, and tastes like, as well as in what ways and contexts we are likely to encounter the apple.
Cognition a function of the mind
Thinking follows feeling. Like the cardiovascular system, the nervous system connects to and communicates with cells throughout the body. Conception, as a kind of mind cognition, involves the processing by which we generate cognitive representations of relationships among our associations. For example, the visual perception of the apple activates the network of perceptions associated with apples, which includes the networks of any other perceptions that we have learned to simultaneously activate or process as an equivalent of the first; this is how we know that the apple is called “apple.”
As a higher function of the mind, conscious thinking involves the processing by which we generate cognitive representations of our own cognitive processes. As we continuously process information from the world, we are always creating Perceptions, Associations, and Conceptions. When we are consciously aware of any of these cognitive representations as words, we internally hear the words in our minds, which produces an auditory perception of the words, which we then associate with other perceptions and conceptualize in the context of a network of perceptions; this is how we know what we are thinking.
Cognition a function of spirit
Should we continue along this road, we might speculate about a state of being or awareness beyond thinking. This element of cognitive processing, as a kind of spirit cognition, could simply involve the processing of information without the cognitive representation of it, or at the least without language-based cognitive representation of it. We will not try to describe this process in detail here, but it would relate to the question of how we know without knowing that we know.