What is consciousness? How does it fit into the natural order of things? What is it good for? Is it unique to humans? Why do so many of our actions bypass consciousness? Answers to these questions will determine a new image of what it is to be human. As Lord Dunsany wrote:
— Man is a small thing and the night is large and full of wonder —
— Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness

Cognition: the process or processes by which an organism gains "knowledge" or becomes aware of events or objects in its environment and uses that knowledge for comprehension and "problem-solving." (BrainFactsSNS)

The mental activities involved in acquiring, “retaining,” and using knowledge. The manipulation of mental representations of "information" in order to draw "inferences" and "conclusions." (Hockenbury, 260) Act or process of knowing which includes "awareness" and judgment, "perceiving," "reasoning," and conceiving. (GHR) Thinking cannot be fully comprehended if “emotion” and “motivations” are ignored. (LeDoux, 174) You can turn off certain types of cognition like a light switch, just with the presence or absence of "exercise." (Medina, BSP37) Adjective - ‘cognitive.’ Also referred to as ‘thinking.’


Abstraction: a process that moves thinking from singular concrete instances, to more general, universal ideas. (Johnson, 83) The act of considering something independently of its associations, attributes, or concrete accomplishments. (Oxford) (Also), activities performed to identify concepts and aspects of published information and research reports. (MeSH)

Abstract: derived, extracted. Separated from matter, practice or particular examples; not concrete. (Oxford) A concept or idea not associated with any specific instance. (NCIt) Applies to many individual cases. (Johnson, 81) 

Bottom-Up Processing: organizing perceptions by beginning with low-level features. (Coon, 211) Information processing that emphasizes the importance of the “sensory receptors” in detecting the basic features of a “stimulus” in the process of recognizing a whole pattern; analysis that moves from the parts to the whole. To make use of raw sensory data, we must organize, interpret, and relate the data to existing knowledge. (Hockenbury, 106) Also referred to as 'data-driven processing.’

Cognitive Dissonance: an unpleasant state of psychological tension that occurs when there’s an inconsistency between two thoughts or perceptions. Occurs in situations in which you become uncomfortably aware that your behavior and your attitudes are in conflict. (Hockenbury, 448) People consciously choosing a false belief because it ‘feels’ correct. The more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. (CampbellVA, 86)

Cognitive Dissonance Theory: people dislike cognitive dissonance and attempt to make their attitudes consistent with each other. Inconsistent cognitions create dissonance, and people attempt to reduce dissonance by changing one of the cognitions to achieve consistency. (Bamford, 11/30/10) Editor's note - developed by Leon Festinger.

Cognitive Reserve: a result of staying mentally vigorous. Many people are found to have the neural ravages of “Alzheimer’s disease” upon autopsy - but they never showed the symptoms while they were alive. Their brains (had) protection against the symptoms. Even while parts of their brains degrade, they have other ways of solving problems. (Eagleman, 129)

Comparative Cognition: the study of animal “learning,” “memory,” thinking, and “language.” (Hockenbury, 276) Also referred to as ‘animal cognition.’

Consciousness: experience of qualitative unified subjectivity. All the experience we have. The common sense definition is ‘states of qualitative feeling or “sentience” or awareness.’ A special qualitative feeling. A subjective feeling. A unified feeling. (Rose, Episode 1 John Searle) At this point in the scientific exploration of these phenomena, it cannot be defined rigorously. Consciousness usually requires some form of “selective attention” and a short-term storage of information. (Koch, 332) Consciousness exists to control-and to distribute control over-the automated “zombie systems.” (Eagleman, 140) Conscious awareness comes online in those situations where events in the world violate our expectations. (Eagleman, 141) Consciousness is probably not an all-or-nothing quality, but comes in degrees. (Eagleman, 143) Consciousness is the major unsolved problem in biology. (Koch, Forward by Francis Crick, xiii) Consciousness now has left the domain of pure metaphysical speculations and, backed up with some clinical data, into an empirical field of normal scientific inquiry where you can do “experiments,” have “hypotheses,” and make progress. (Koch, BSP2)

Conscious: knowing or perceiving within oneself, aware. One’s sensations, thoughts. Aware of what one is doing or intends to do. Having the mental faculties in an active and waking state. (Oxford) 

Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness (NCC): the smallest set of brain mechanisms and events sufficient for specific conscious feeling. (Koch, xvi) Subtle, flickering patterns of brain activity that underlie each and every conscious experience. (Koch, jacket)

Critical Thinking: the active process of trying to minimize the influence of preconceptions and “biases” while rationally evaluating evidence, determining the conclusions that can be drawn from evidence, and considering alternative explanations. (Hockenbury, 16)

Descriptive Cognition: speaking or telling the truth. A perception coincident with, corresponding to, or representing real events or people. (Oxford) Emphasizes ‘What is true?’ In law it means to know, rhetorically, the difference between right and wrong. (Goldberg, 166) Also referred to as “veridical.”

Discernment: the capacity to develop a vision of what should be out of a sophisticated understanding of what has been and is. (Johnson, 83)

Dual Process Account: psychologists and economists sometimes (characterize) the brain as containing two separate systems. One is fast, automatic, and below the surface of conscious awareness, while the other is slow, cognitive, and conscious. These two processes are always battling it out. Despite the ‘dual-process’ (label), there is no real reason to assume that there are only two systems - in fact there may be several systems. (Eagleman, 109-110) Editor’s note - includes the brain functions characterized as “low road” and “high road.”

High Road: mode of thinking that allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. (Kahneman, 21) Pathways through brain functions that work methodically with deliberate effort. We are aware of the high road. Provide a considered understanding of what’s going on. Enable us to think about what we feel. (Goleman, 16) Sends inputs to the “prefrontal cortex.” Runs in parallel with the "low road." A slower (velocity) path than the low road by several times. By the time the low road has reacted, sometimes all the high road can do is make the best of things. (Goleman,17) Operations of (the high road) require “attention” and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Examples (of activities associated with the high road) include: looking for a woman with white hair; searching memory to identify a surprising sound; filling out a tax form; focusing on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room; maintaining a faster walking (or running) speed than is natural for you; counting the occurrences of the letter ‘a’ in a page of text; parking in a narrow space; comparing two washing machines for overall value; and monitoring the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation. (Kahneman, 22) Includes the “anterior cingulate cortex” and areas of the "prefrontal cortex." (Goleman, 321) Can be (characterized as) cognitive, systematic, "explicit," analytic, rule-based, and reflective. (Eagleman, 209) Also referred to as 'System 2' and 'C-System.'

Low Road: brain circuitry that operates beneath our awareness, automatically, effortlessly, and with great speed. Tries to immediately feel with someone else. Runs in parallel with the “high road.” (Goleman, 16) A ‘hidden’ layer that’s inaccessible to our consciousness, and this inaccessibility cannot be overcome. (CampbellVA, 144) Mode of thinking that operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Examples of activities attributed to (the low road) include: orienting to the source of a sudden sound; making a ‘disgust face’ when shown a horrible picture; driving a car on an empty road; understanding simple sentences; detecting hostility in a voice; completing the phrase ‘bread and...’; answering 2 + 2 = ?; detecting that one object is more distant than another. (Kahneman, 20) Can be (characterized as) automatic, "implicit,"  "heuristic,"  "intuitive," holistic, reactive, and impulsive. (Eagleman, 109) Our sense that something is familiar or real is not a conscious conclusion because it’s coming from parts of the brain that we do not have conscious access to or control over. (CampbellVA, 116) (The low road comprises) sensory motor systems that carry out a specialized behavior in a rapid and effortless manner, without, themselves, giving rise to any conscious sensation. Examples include eye movements, walking, running, cycling, dancing, driving, climbing, and other highly trained athletic activities. (Koch, 347) Mechanical ‘alien’ subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. ‘Alien’ emphasizes the foreignness of the programs. Some are “instinctual” and some are learned. Almost all of our actions-- from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee--are run by zombie systems. ‘Zombie’ emphasizes the lack of conscious access. (Eagleman, 131-132) Also referred to as  'System 1,’  'X-System.'  ‘zombie agents,’ ’zombie systems,’  ‘alien subroutines,’  ‘sensory motor agents,’ and ‘sensory motor behaviors.’

Embodied Cognition: an approach to the study of cognition that regards cognition as something that involves, not just the brain, but also the body and its environment. (Campbell, BSP73) Thinking with your body, not only with your brain. (Kahneman, 51) The way we (think about) the world is strongly shaped by the kinds of bodies that we have. Correspondingly, the way that other creatures (think about) the world is going to be strongly shaped by the kinds of bodies that they have. (Thompson, BSP89) The key concept of embodied cognition is that our mind is shaped by our body and the way it interacts with the world around us. We are not passive recipients of sensory information perception is shaped by how we move in the world. (Campbell, BSP89) Embodied cognition imagines, not that the brain can be isolated from the body and the environment, but thinks of the body as in some sense shaping, or constraining, or involved in the very processing of the kinds of information that an organism needs to interact successfully with the world. Thinking involves active exploration—use of the body with things in the environment. (Shapiro, BSP73) Editor’s note - generally referred to as a characteristic of cognition.

Feeling of Knowing: when you feel that you know the answer to a question but you can’t think of it right off.  When you’re trying to figure out something and suddenly it all makes perfect sense, that ‘aha’ moment.(CampbellVA, 41) A special sense of ‘rightness’ that arises at the same time as (an) idea reaches our awareness. (CampbellVA, 308) There can be a mismatch between what we consciously think we know and what we actually know. (CampbellVA, 56) The feeling of certainty about anything that comes out of the unconscious mind is not the most reliable indicator of correctness. (CampbellVA, 789) The feeling that a decision is right is not the same thing as providing evidence that it is right. (CampbellVA, 350) The more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish it. We tend to go with what feels right, no matter what the evidence. (CampbellVA, 86) We need to remind ourselves to examine this feeling critically whenever it arises. If we get into the habit of asking ourselves what kind of evidence supports our certainty, we may be surprised how often the strength of our feeling is not supported. (CampbellVA, 806)

Challenger Study: within a day of the Challenger explosion (Ulric Neisser) interviewed 106 students and he had them write down exactly how they heard about it, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he interviewed them again. He found that, for 25% of them, their second account was significantly different from their original journal entries. Most of them were certain that their memories were absolutely correct. Many of them, when confronted with what they had originally written down, still had a high degree of confidence in their false recollections. (Campbell, 72)

Humor: serves to reduce uncertainty, relieve tension, engender trust, and promote social bonds. When you think something is funny, “Von Economo neurons” in the “frontal insula” and “anterior cingulate cortex” are active. (Blakeslee, 187)

Idea: a product of mental activity existing in the mind; an item of knowledge or belief; a thought; a way of thinking. A mental image of something previously seen or known and recalled by the memory. Something imagined; a conception having no basis in reality. (Oxford) Can be concrete or “abstract.” Can be expressed in many ways: as a verb, as a noun, as an adjective, or as a clenched fist. (Kahneman, 52)

Imagination: the action of forming mental images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. (Oxford) The altering of “abstractions.” In philosophy, assists the process of abstraction by filling in the details of an idea, selecting details, and relating ideas to one another. (Johnson, 82) Einstein believed ingenious thought could be stimulated by allowing one’s imagination to float freely, unrestrained by conventional inhibitions. (Einstein, 9) In a 2000 study (O’Craven and Kanwisher), the same brain areas were activated while seeing or while imagining a familiar face. Likewise, the same brain areas were activated while seeing or while imagining a familiar place. (Hockenbury, 262) Patterns flow into each “cortical” “region” either from (the) senses or from lower areas of the memory hierarchy.  Each cortical region creates “predictions,” which are sent back down the hierarchy. To imagine something, you merely let your predictions turn around and become inputs. ‘Imagining’ is just another word for ‘planning.’ (Hawkins, 200)

Meditation: to exercise the mental faculties in thought or contemplation. (Oxford) Can exert control over pain and emotion. One study, in people who had practiced meditation for thirty years, showed up to 50% lower brain response to pain. Taking six breaths per minute, rather than the usual 10-12 can help bring your autonomic nervous system back toward balance. (Blakeslee, 201) Verb - 'meditate.'

Metacognition: awareness of one’s mental processes. (Goleman2, 41)

Prediction: the action of predicting future events; an instance of this, a forecast. (Oxford) The brain uses a memory-based model to make continuous predictions of future events. (Hawkins, 6) Comparing what we see to what we expect. The “feeling of knowing” and feelings of familiarity are integral to learning. (CampbellVA, 225) Generally regarded as how the mind operates. The brain is constantly comparing incoming information to what it already knows or expects or believes. As higher areas make sense of an input, the information is fed back to lower regions. (Blakeslee, 41) Nature first created animals such as reptiles with sophisticated senses but relatively rigid behaviors. Then, it added a memory system, and feeding the "sensory" stream into that system, enabled the animal to remember past experiences. When the animal found itself in the same or a similar situation, the memory would be recalled, leading to a prediction of what would happen next. Thus “intelligence” and understanding, started as a memory system that fed predictions into the sensory stream. These predications are the essence of understanding. To know something means that you can make predictions about it. (Hawkins, 104) Verb - ‘predicting.’ Also referred to as ‘memory prediction framework.’

Inference: the idea that the brain conjectures what might be ‘out there.’ (Eagleman, 34)

Prescriptive Cognition: emphasizes ‘What is best for me?’ In law - to be able to use knowledge to guide one’s own behavior. (Goldberg, 166) Also referred to as ‘actor-centered’ and ‘action–centered cognition.’

Social Processing: the mental processes people use to make sense out of their social environment. (Hockenbury, 439) Internalizing our subjective interpretations of other people’s beliefs, goals, feelings and actions, and vicariously experiencing aspects of these as if they were our own. (Yang, 1) Also referred to as ‘social cognition.’

Spatial Cognition: a whole range of mental functions that vary from navigational ability (the ability to go from point A to point B), to the mental manipulation of complex visual arrays. (Kolb, 528) Necessary for forming a mental map of where things are. We use this to organize our desks or remember where we left our keys. Barbara Arrowsmith Young lost everything all the time with no mental map of where things were. She became a ‘pile person’ keeping everything she was working on in front of her. (Doidge, 28) Also referred to as ‘spatial reasoning.’

Theory of the Mind: the ability to attribute mental states (e.g., beliefs, desires, feelings, intentions, thoughts, etc.) to self and to others, allowing an individual to understand and infer behavior on the basis of the mental states. Difference or deficit in theory of mind is associated with “Asperger syndrome,”  “autistic disorder,” and “schizophrenia.” (MeSH) The ability to put yourself in someone’s ‘mental shoes’ is the capacity to form the theory of the mind. Napoleon discussing an adversary’s potential next move, said “Try to figure out what he considers his optimal move from his own perspective, given his own history, and with the information likely to be available to him, not to you.” (Goldberg, 24)

Top-Down Processing: information processing that emphasizes the importance of the observer’s knowledge, expectations, and other cognitive processes in arriving at meaningful perceptions. Analysis that moves from the whole to the parts. (Hockenbury, 106) Also referred to as ‘conceptually-driven processing.'

Unconscious Cognition: any processing that does not give rise to conscious awareness. (Koch2, 2011) Without unconscious cognition there would be no conscious decision-making. (CampbellVA, 350) Reminds us that we have no awareness of a (brain) process. (Eagleman, 34) One does not need to be consciously aware to perform sophisticated “motor” acts. (Eagleman, 8) Also referred to as ‘unconscious.’