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Man's Cognitive Abilities

Updated on February 11, 2012


What happens when we learn something? Learning is not merely something you do in school, for you are learning all through life; a baby touches a hot radiator, and it burns his finger-he very likely will not go near that radiator again, because he has "learnt" that it hurts. We learn a lot of things in this way, especially our likes and dislikes.

But we also learn in other ways- often, if we are trying to do something, like making a model ship, or even doing sums, we try out a lot. of ways before we nit on the right one; afterwards, if we are doing the same sort of thing, we are quicker and more successful, because the wrong ways of doing it are no longer used. Sometimes, when we are solving a problem, we suddenly see what the solution is and can easily solve it again. An example of this sort of learning would be this: suppose you wanted to pick some apples off a tree that was too high for you to reach; you might try and climb the tree, but find that you could not. Then you try a stick, but it is too short. Then it suddenly strikes you that you could join two sticks together, so you tie them together with string. What has happened here has been that several objects, the sticks and the piece of string, which have no connexion with each other, have been suddenly thought of to have a connexion. The same sort of thing happens when we realize "in a flash" that something we have learnt before has a connexion with the problem we are trying to solve now.

In all these different ways, then, we learn about things, and we use this to solve other problems.

The Feelings

What happens when we are happy, or frightened or angry? We say that we feel pleased, or afraid, or cross; but besides these feelings there are also various changes that take place 'in our bodies when our emotions or feelings are stirred up. When we are feeling pleased and happy we run and jump about, laugh and generally "feel good," and this is in part because the various organs in our bodies are working smoothly. But if we are suddenly frightened a whole lot of changes take place-our hearts beat faster; the rate of our breathing changes; we may crouch clown and feel our skin "going goose-fleshy."

Besides all these changes, which we may easily be aware of, other changes have taken place-our digestion stops, various chemical changes in the body increase our available energy, and so on. All these changes have a purpose-if we are frightened or angry we probably want either to run away or to fight, and these changes in the body prepare the way for this by making it possible for us to concentrate all our energies in one direction, running away or fighting, rather than carrying on in a normal way: we are stimulated to greater effort.

Of course, there are plenty of times when we are frightened or angry and do not run away or stop and fight; this is because we have learnt to control the way in which we show how we feel, that is, we have learnt to control our emotions.

Remembering and Thinking

If we are asked if we can remember what happened two weeks ago we may find it very difficult to do so; but certain things seem to be more easily remembered than others, and others more quickly forgotten. Generally speaking, it is the pleasant and the unpleasant things that we remember, though something that is very unpleasant may very easily be completely forgotten, so as to prevent us feeling again how unpleasant it was.

Our memories of what happened some time ago are not always very accurate. We tend to remember the things we are interested in, and to muddle up the bits and pieces of whatever it is we are trying to remember. You can show this very easily by telling something to someone and then getting him to tell it back to you some days later; or to tell it to someone else, who then tells it to someone else, and so on: you will find that the last version can be very different from the first.

If we are asked: "Do you remember John's model yacht?" and we say that we do, our memory of that yacht appears to us as a sort of image which we see "in our mind's eye." Much of our remembering is in the form of images- it may be something we see "in the mind's eye," or it may be an image of something heard; for example, some people on hearing the word "violin" get a memory image of the sound of the violin being played. Again, one can get taste and smell images, and images of movement.

These various mental images are very important in connexion with thinking, because if we are asked to think of something, say a dog, we usually get a mental image of our dog, or a dog we know; or, of course, we may think up a dog we have never heard of, in which case it. would be an "imaginary" one. And an imaginary dog is one which exists only "in our mind's eye."


We all learn to talk, and we learn the language and the ways of talking of the country and district in which we live.

At the top of our throat is a small box, called the larynx. In it are stretched strings of muscle, called vocal chords, and as our breath passes through them they can be made to produce sound.

This sound is modified by the mouth, tongue and lips to make an endless variety of different sounds, to which we attach special meanings : a thought in the mind is expressed by certain sounds and people hearing those sounds get a similar thought in their minds, though it may not be exactly as dear as the thought in the speaker's mind.

How do we learn to talk? A baby's first sounds are cries and grunts; when he is about two months old he makes sounds like "goo," and a little later sounds like "ma-ma" and "da-da." But he soon finds that his mother shows special pleasure when he says ''ma-ma,'~ and after a little while he says "ma-ma" when he hears her, or wants to call her to him. Just before he is about one year old he probably knows a few words, which he has heard grown-ups use. By the time he is two years old he has learnt very many more, sometimes as many as two to three hundred different words. But it takes him some time still to be able to put words together to form a sentence. When he is five he can make sentences of about half a dozen words.

It takes some time for the ability to make words to develop; this is because the child's speech and hearing mechanisms are not fully developed. To say "doll," for example, rather than "da" (which is what a very small baby might say) calls for a complicated movement of the lungs, throat, mouth and tongue. The child makes many attempts to speak properly, helped on- by his parents, and later by his teachers, until before long he is talking much like everyone else.

When we speak we make use of words which stand for a whole lot of the same sort of things; and we call these words "concepts." For example, we see a row of buildings, some tall, some short, some colored, some plain, some made of stone, some of brick, some covered with plaster, and so on; and all theseĀ· buildings have something in common-people live in them . We use the concept "house" to mean a building in which people live. Of course, we use these concepts when we think, as well as when we talk, and the mental images we talked about when discussing remembering and thinking play an important part here, too.

Because we are able to use concepts like "house," "tree," "motor-car," "ship," and so on, and because we can also use them to speak of sue h t hm. gs as "honesty, " "happiness " -which are concepts describing how people behave or how they feel-we are able to make sense of the things that go on around us; and besides that we are able to think up new things, to talk about them, and even to, try them out. And speaking helps us to make known what we want and understand what other people want.


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