Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Other Cognitive Levels of Explanation

Our perception of the world can be explained through various levels of cognition that are not normally taken to be part of the cardinal aspects of cognitive science. These levels include physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. However, in order to provide a holistic account of cognition, it is crucial to understand the constituent levels (and their interactions) that provide the conditions for the possibility of cognition in general. The following will attempt to explain the level at which cognitive science operates on using 'learning' as our running example.

The Biological level: Synaptic ChangesEdit

Learning at the biological level begins at the nervous system. The nervous system is broken up into two main divisions: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is a center for incoming and outgoing information and is made up of the nerves of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system acts as a centre to convey messages between the organs in the human body and the central nervous system. It is further subdivided into the somatic nervous system and the automatic nervous system. The somatic nervous system is in control of the muscles, bones and skin. It consists of the sensory somatic nerves, which bring information to the CNS, and the motor somatic nerves which cause a response. The automatic nervous system consists of special motor nerves which are responsible for the internal organs. It is made up of the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for stress and the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body recover from stress[1] This build up of neural circuits allows the body to learn how to properly respond to its environment. Knowing the parts of the nervous system allows for the understanding of how reflexes come about, how pain and fear are learned, how stress is managed and how we are able to learn basic tasks as children.

Biological learning is based of Hebbian Theory, which simply states that neurons that fire together, wire together. Donald Hebb suggested that neurons act together to influence behavior, linking in networks called call assemblies. Regarding his Hebbian Theory, Hebb stated that, "When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased". This is how learning occurs and how neural connection are made during the process [2]

Reflexes and the brainEdit

A baby is born with all the neurons possible, over time the ones not stimulated will be lost as the stimulated ones are making new connections. This is the same time where children can learn new languages, respond to textures and stimuli in their environment and learn how to protect themselves from their surroundings.

Reflexes are often involuntary and unconscious; occurring with little brain involvement. Babies for instance are born with a set of reflexes that allow them to respond to different situations [1]. One of which is the Rooting reflex, which consists of a baby opening its mouth and searching for a nipple when touched on the cheek [2]. This reflex ensures a babies survival by always obtaining nutrients. The framework of this reflex and many others is build prenatal stage where the baby can respond to the sounds it hears. Other reflexes, such as response to pain and discomfort are learned later on when the baby is born. For instance, if a toddler were to place their hand on a burner, they would quickly move it away with little thought. They would not be able to keep their hand on the burner for a long period of time. This is because of the reflex that occurs. The temperature receptors in the skin are triggered by the high heat, which causes a signal to be sent through the sensory nervous system to the interneurons located in the spinal cord. It is here where the signal splits in two directions; one going to the brain to be stored for future reference and one to the motor neurons to signal back. This signaling back causes the effectors neurons to generate a response, thus contracting the muscles to move the hand. The pain that results later is caused by the signal that reached the brain and was stored; this pathway forms a framework of the reflex and is termed, reflex arc. This framework is built by the neurons that were stimulated and would have made new connections via dendrites with each other[1]. The pain induced by the neurons in the brain would have taught the toddler to not touch the burner. If the toddler was to repeat this action, the neurons that make up the framework would fire together in response; making the synaptic space between them even stronger. The child, once more, would learn not to touch the burner or anything similar.

Math, language and the brainEdit

However, this doesn't only have to occur with response to pain and discomfort. Due to having a great amount of neurons, a toddler has the ability to learn many languages. When a child is learning a new language, many neurons are active inside their brain making connections and removing the ones not needed. The ones that form the new connections become better and stronger with practice of the language; making a difficult task second nature [2]. We are able to talk fluently with no struggle to form sentences in our native tongue; it is second nature to us. But if you compare the speech of an adult to that of a toddler, then the difference is extraordinary. The toddler takes a longer time to form sentences, talks at a slower speed and uses simple language. Over time, the toddler will get better as their synapses have repeated usage, eventually reaching the level of an adult between the ages of 8-10. The same process is taken for any subject or activity. If a toddler learns and practices math every day, then math problem solving would be easier for them in comparison with someone who lacks mathematical practice. However, neurons don't stop making connections when the toddler grows. The connections between neurons and repeated usages of synapses occurs, but at a lower rate. It is much harder to learn a language at twenty four than at four, but not impossible. With practice and effort, an individual can form new connections that make them able to solve mathematical equations, play the piano, or speak a new language.

This process was described by Donald Hebb who suggested that neurons act together to influence behavior, linking in networks called call assemblies [2]. These assemblies (neuronal connections) are the crux of Hebbian theory and the means by which learning occurs.

The Chemical level: NeurotransmittersEdit

Learning at the chemical level observes the biological level at a deeper level of interaction; the interaction between neurotransmitters and neurons. A neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that is contained in a vesicle and released at proper time into the synapses. A synapses consist of two neurons, one forming the axon and the other the dendrite, the space between is the synaptic cleft, which neurotransmitters travel across when an impulse is fired. Each neurotransmitter also has a specific chemical shape, that matches a specific area in the dendrite that it passes to. No other neurotransmitter can fit in this area except the one it is made for [1].

Depending on the neural pathway that is activated, different neurotransmitters can be released for different situations and cause different reactions. Dopamine is associated with reinforcement and addiction; when a person goes through an experience were they are proud of their accomplishments, such as achieving a A+ on a midterm, dopamine would reinforce the satisfaction of doing well, resulting in the person gaining motivation to do well on all midterms and assignments. If a person if trying to quit an addiction, such as cocaine or smoking, they may feel anxiety on a daily bases due to withdrawal. This is due to the serotonin released to regulate anxiety [3].

Coffee, seafood and transmittersEdit

Children often despise the taste of rich and savory foods, such as coffee and seafood. However, around older ages these foods become somewhat common individuals diets; they become tolerated and enjoyed. This change occurs due to the chemical reactions in the brain during the first experience with the foods.

During development in the womb, babies often swallow amniotic fluid, which differs in taste depending on what is eaten by the mother. This allows the baby to practice swallowing and digestion to prepare for the real world, as well as to have some pre-formed experiences with their future food; the baby would have a tendency to like certain foods that it tasted in utero when its born [2]. As a toddler, the child's stomach cannot handle certain foods, due to the child still developing and not being able to digest certain macromolecules available in food. Thus, this results in the child vomiting or having a bad reaction to bitter or rich foods. At the chemical level however, neurotransmitters such as dopamine are released during the first experience to reinforce the concept that bitter or rich foods are bad, forming the concept that coffee is horrible or shrimp is slimy; the body has a time sensitivity to certain things that allow for its safety. This may have also been an evolutionary defense since bitterness is associated with toxicity [4]. As the child starts to reach adulthood, their digestive system matures, as well as their taste buds and nasal receptors, and they are able to handle a variety of foods. Its during this time that their brain chemistry changes; dopamine might reinforce the good experience of bitter and rich foods such as coffee or sea food. Later this might lead to a dependence on coffee which will also lead to a change in brain chemistry.


Addiction is described as a need for substance that entails frequent usage and physical dependence and later abuse. With each usage the brain learns that the drug causes a feel of utopia, thus wanting more. Eventually, with repeated usage, the first dosage becomes tolerated, having no desired effect, thus the dosage increases 10-fold. Most of these drugs mimic the shape of other natural neurotransmitters; therefore being able to bind successfully to the respective receptor; they also affect the uptake of the neurotransmitters [5]. In cocaine addicts, the drug blocks dopamine reuptake, but also stimulates release of it, thus causing the symptoms of euphoria and depression that follow. In smokers, nicotine activates the acetylcholine receptors causing an individual to have a decrease in stress and an increase in alertness. During withdrawal these reactions are changed, causing an individual to "miss" their euphoria emotion or "high" [3].

The Psychological levelEdit

Psychology defines learning as a change in the behavior or knowledge of an individual that is due to an experience. Learning can be categorized into different sections, such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. With classical conditioning, a stimulus is used to create a response, that response is then generated again but with a different stimulus. This was demonstrated using Pavlov's dog; the dog would hear a bell, begin to salivate and would receive food. After many trials, when the dog would hear the bell it would begin to salivate, even when no food was received. This type of learning is thought to be responsible for phobias [2].

A phobia is an irrational fear of some event, situation or object (real or imaginary) that poses no real threat or immediate danger. Phobias can develop from a bad experience, and often disappear over time. However, some can be serious enough to need medical care. If a child was bitten by a dog, they might have a phobia of dogs as an adult. Which would lead them to have anxiety when near dogs due to fearing being bitten again. This can also occur if a toddler is informed from a young age that an object is dangerous. If a parent tells a toddler that getting hurt when falling and falling in general is something to fear, the child may grow up to have a fear of heights due to fear of falling and getting hurt [2].

In operant conditioning, the consequences control the response. This can explain actions such as studying, going to work or asking someone out. These actions are not simple reflexes, they are regulated by their consequences. We study to not fail exams, which will lead to not failing classes. We go to work to have an income so we can pay for necessary things like food, a home or transportation. We ask someone out with the chance that a relationship might occur. If the consequences are positive, then the relationship between them and the response or stimuli increases. If you study for an X amount of hours and get an A+ on an exam, then the relationship between good grades and motivation to study gets stronger. However, if you ask someone out and they reject, you may experience low self-confidence and lack of self-assurance. Which will lower the chances of you asking someone out in the future due to the feeling experienced with rejection; a relationship between response and consequences is decreased [2].

Observational learning occurs when the behavior of an individual is affected by others around them. This learning occurs in three stages. The first being attention; we pay attention to others actions and the consequences that follow. We repeat the ones with positive outcomes and avoid the negative. A very controversial example would be our standards for beauty. Young girls observe photo shopped ideals of women in magazines and commercials looking happy and being around others who seem to love them. The girls then get the idea that if they looked like the women then they would also be as happy and as loved as them. The outcome is an unrealistic standard of beauty passed through generations. The second stage is retention. If we observe something that results in a positive outcome but we do not have a chance of repeating it, then we store it in our memory. If for instance you arrive at a restaurant and order a dish, but later observe another individual with a dish that they seem to be enjoying greatly, you will store that information in your memory and the next time your are at the restaurant you will order the same dish to have the same enjoyment that you observed them having. The third stage is reproduction: an individual tries to reproduce the action observed and stored in his/her memory to their best ability. We can watch someone figure-skate, but when trying to repeat the action the task is harder than observed with no background knowledge or practice [2].

The Sociological level: TaboosEdit

In every society, there are rules that are followed to allow it to function properly. These rules regulate the social behavior of individuals and are often derived through generations. Through generations, social change occurs that causes new social rules to come about, thus leading to certain taboos or traditions. For instance, in western society, as well as many others, female students are stereotyped as being weaker at mathematics than their male counterparts. Moreover, we often perceive men who have had multiple relations with women as desirable and more masculine, while women who have many sexual partners are shamed. Females learn of this stereotype early on and often fear being judged in relationships due to how many men they had relations with. Whereas, men who have not had relations with many women often fear being judged for their lack of experience. Academically, females are told that they are not equally as capable as men at mathematics, and in some respects are seen as less feminine when they excel at STEM subjects. This stereotype causes some females to avoid STEM subjects or not work as hard in them to succeed due to the generalization. We adapt to these stereotypes and they are passed through generations.

Different societies may also have certain food that they believe cause certain outcomes, like gaining intelligent, being unintelligent, have a certain disorder or have a birth defect. In western society including Europe, eating cat and dog meat is extremely taboo since these animals are considered beloved pets. However, in China and other parts of the world eating these meats are a normal part the diet [6]. In Peru, eating guinea pigs is a common part of a diet, however, in western society, the thought of eating such an animal is revolting and barbaric [7]. Western society does consume a large amount of beef product and dairy products, which is extremely taboo in many Hindi societies due to religious beliefs about cattle. [8]. Over time western society experienced events that caused social change to occur and make dogs and cats beloved pets, societies like the ones in China did not go through the same social change and see these animals as food items. We adapted to the change that we should love dogs and cat like family members and get defensive as a society if someone shows cruelty to such animals. These adaptations are passed to generations and are learned by individuals at a young age. For instance, a toddler might grow up with a puppy and might describe the dog as his/her best friend when they reach their teenage years.

The Physical LevelEdit

Using the subatomic level to try to explain consciousness is often not taken seriously by many cognitive scientists. Trying to use quantum effects and quantum levels to explain how people learn and process information has been discredited by notable figures in the field. For example, Roger Penrose believed that consciousness was a form of quantum behaviour. He argued for this by suggesting that the mind/brain, like the universe, is far more complex than what we previously thought. He debunks the classic analogy between the brain and computer: The brain, he insisted, does not require a strict function of power for serial processing, but rather seems to operate on many levels simultaneously. Unlike a computer that can process many items, but has limitations, the brain is superior due to lack of limitations [9].

The Cognitive level: Adjusting parameters on productionEdit

The cognitive level deals with rules called productions, which allows the mind to do what it does with little information. This is supported by the processing of the outcome of an action. This processing usually involves if-then rules, to create a belief or image that will be put in context in other situations. For instance, if you are hungry, and you go to a new restaurant, then eat. Depending on the outcome, the productions used to get to that thought will be either made stronger or weaker for future events. If the outcome was getting horribly sick from going to the new restaurant, then in the future when you are hungry the thought of that particular restaurant wouldn't be pleasant. A link is formed between the unpleasant experience and getting sick, causing the pathway of that thought not to fire as frequently. If the experience was an excellent one, then the action of eating at that restaurant will be repeated in the future. Since the cognitive level deal with how information is processed, this would be different for everyone in all situations. If a student has a midterm, and they study, then get an excellent mark, the pathway that lead to the decision to study will fire more frequently in the future. However, if another student has does the same process, but ends up with a lower mark or a failing one, the pathway to study will fire less frequently due to the negative outcome that resulted.


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