Cognitive development
Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,...

 and psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 focusing on a child's development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning, and other aspects of brain development and cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology exploring internal mental processes.It is the study of how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems.Cognitive psychology differs from previous psychological approaches in two key ways....

 compared to an adult's point of view. A large portion of research has gone into understanding how a child imagines the world. Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget was a French-speaking Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology"....

 was a major force in the discovering of this field study, forming his "theory of cognitive development
Theory of cognitive development
Piaget's theory of cognitive development is a comprehensive theory about the nature and development of human intelligence first developed by Jean Piaget. It is primarily known as a developmental stage theory, but in fact, it deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans come gradually to...

". Many of his theoretical claims have since fallen out of favor. However, his description of the general tendencies of cognitive development (e.g., that it moves from being dependent on actions and perception in infancy to understanding of the more observable aspects of reality in childhood to capturing the underlying abstract rules and principles in adolescence) is generally acceptable today. Besides, many of the phenomena that he discovered, such as object permanence
Object permanence
Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. It is acquired by human infants between 8 and 12 months of age via the process of logical induction to help them develop secondary schemes in their sensori-motor coordination...

 in infancy and the conservations in school age children, are real and attracts the interest of researchers in the present day in spite of everything. In the recent years alternative models have been advanced, including the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development
Neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development
Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development has been criticized on many grounds. One criticism is concerned with the very nature of development itself. It is suggested that Piaget's theory does not explain why development from stage to stage occurs. The theory is also criticized for ignoring...

, which aim to integrate Piaget's ideas which stood up well to the test of time with more recent theorizing and methods in developmental and cognitive science.

A major controversy in cognitive development has been "nature vs. nurture", or nativism
Psychological nativism
In the field of psychology, nativism is the view that certain skills or abilities are 'native' or hard wired into the brain at birth. This is in contrast to empiricism, the 'blank slate' or tabula rasa view, which states that the brain has inborn capabilities for learning from the environment but...

 versus empiricism
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

. However, it is now recognized by most experts that this is a false dichotomy: there is overwhelming evidence from biological and behavioral sciences that from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment. Another issue is how culture and social experience relate to developmental changes in thinking. Another question is phylogenic convergence or homology
Homology (biology)
Homology forms the basis of organization for comparative biology. In 1843, Richard Owen defined homology as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function". Organs as different as a bat's wing, a seal's flipper, a cat's paw and a human hand have a common underlying...

 with non-human animals. Most aspects of learning and cognition are similar in humans and non-human animals. These issues propagate to nearly every aspect of cognitive development.

Speculated core systems of cognition

Nativists theorize that children are born with many innate cognitive systems designed to tackle problems that the human species have faced over a very long evolutionary time. Empiricists study how these skills may be learned in such a short time. The debate is over whether these systems are learned by general-purpose learning devices, or domain-specific cognition. Moreover, many modern cognitive developmental psychologists, recognizing that the term "innate" does not square with modern knowledge about epigenesis, neurobiological development, or learning, favor a non-nativist framework. Researchers who discuss "core systems" often speculate about differences in thinking and learning between proposed domains. The more modern framework questions how differences in processing different kinds of information (not necessarily called "domains") emerge with experience and brain development within general dynamic systems. This is sometimes called the "neuroconstructivist" approach.

Researchers who posit a set of so-called "core domains" suggest that children are innate sensitivity to specific kinds of patterns of information. Those commonly cited include:


Infants appear to have two systems for dealing with numbers. One deals with small numbers, often called subitizing
Subitizing and counting
Subitizing, coined in 1949 by E.L. Kaufman et al. refers to the rapid, accurate, and confident judgments of number performed for small numbers of items. The term is derived from the Latin adjective subitus and captures a feeling of immediately knowing how many items lie within the visual scene,...

. Another deals with larger numbers in an approximate fashion.


Very young children appear to have some skill in navigation. This basic ability to infer the direction and distance of unseen locations develops in ways that are not entirely clear. However, there is some evidence that it involves the development of complex language skills between 3 and 5 years. Also, there is evidence that this skill depends importantly on visual experience, because congenitally blind individuals have been found to have impaired abilities to infer new paths between familiar locations.

Later in life, adults can use language and symbols (e.g., maps) to reason about information. When adults' language processing is engaged in other tasks, they reason is different ways.

Visual perception

One of the original nativist versus empiricist debates was over depth perception
Depth perception
Depth perception is the visual ability to perceive the world in three dimensions and the distance of an object. Depth sensation is the ability to move accurately, or to respond consistently, based on the distances of objects in an environment....

. There is some evidence that children less than 72 hours old can perceive such complex things as biological motion
Biological motion
Biological motion is a term used by social and cognitive neuroscientists to refer to the unique visual phenomenon of a moving, animate object. Often, the stimuli used in biological motion experiments are just a few moving dots that reflect the motion of some key joints of the moving organism...

. However, it is unclear how visual experience in the first few days contributes to this perception. There are far more elaborate aspects of visual perception that develop during infancy and beyond. [elaboration of this section is forthcoming!]


Young children seem to be predisposed to think of biological entities (e.g., animals and plants) in an essentialistic
In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described...

 way. This means that they expect such entities (as opposed to, e.g., artifacts) to have many traits such as internal properties that are caused by some "essence" (such as, in our modern Western conceptual framework, the genome).

Language acquisition

A major, well-studied process and consequence of cognitive development is language acquisition
Language acquisition
Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. This language might be vocal as with...

. The traditional view was that this is the result of deterministic, human-specific genetic structures and processes. Other traditions, however, have emphasized the role of social experience in language learning. However, the relation of gene activity, experience, and language development is now recognized as incredibly complex and difficult to specify. Language development is sometimes separated into learning of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse or pragmatics. However, all of these aspects of language knowledge--which were originally posited by the linguist Noam Chomsky to be autonomous or separate--are now recognized to interact in complex ways.

Other notable theoretical views on cognitive development

Of course, the human mind expands far beyond these simple forms of cognition. For example, children are not born knowing what force is, but they are capable of eventually learning.

Whorf's hypothesis

Benjamin Whorf
Benjamin Whorf
In studying the cause of a fire which had started under the conditions just described, Whorf concluded that it was thinking of the "empty" gasoline drums as "empty" in the meaning described in the first definition above, that is as "inert," which led to a fire he investigated...

 believed that a person's thinking depends on the structure and content of their social group's language.

Quine's bootstrapping hypothesis

Willard Van Orman Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition...

 (1908-2000) suggested that there are innate conceptual biases that determine the language meaning that we acquire, and the concepts and beliefs that we acquire, as we develop. Quine's theory relates to other nativist philosophical traditions, such as the European rationalist philosophers. A relevant figure in this nativist tradition for cognitive developmental theory is Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....


Piaget's theory

Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget was a French-speaking Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology"....

 (1896-1980) believed that people move through stages of development that allow them to think in new, more complex ways.

Many of his claims have fallen out of favor. For example, he claimed that young children cannot conserve
Conservation (psychology)
Conservation refers to a logical thinking ability which, according to the psychologist Jean Piaget becomes evident in children aged 3-7 during a second Pre- Operational stage of their development...

 number. However, further experiments show that children did not really understand what was being asked of them. When the experiment is done with candies, and the children are asked which set they want rather than tell an adult which is more, they show no confusion about which group has more items.

Neuroscience and Cognitive Development

During development, especially the first few years of life, children show interesting patterns of neural development
Neural development
Neural development comprises the processes that generate, shape, and reshape the nervous system, from the earliest stages of embryogenesis to the final years of life. The study of neural development aims to describe the cellular basis of brain development and to address the underlying mechanisms...

 and a high degree of neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is a non-specific neuroscience term referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment. Plasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes involved in...

. The relation of brain development and cognitive development is extremely complex and, since the 1990s, a growing area of research.

See also

  • Developmental psychology
    Developmental psychology
    Developmental psychology, also known as human development, is the scientific study of systematic psychological changes, emotional changes, and perception changes that occur in human beings over the course of their life span. Originally concerned with infants and children, the field has expanded to...

  • Fuzzy-trace theory
    Fuzzy-trace theory
    Fuzzy-Trace Theory is a theory that is used in several different areas of psychology, such as cognitive, developmental and social psychology. FTT is a theory of memory and cognition with broad ramifications for the study of judgment and decision-making and two decades of empirical support...

  • Infant and child psychology
  • Infant cognitive development
    Infant cognitive development
    The cognitive development of infants is the part of developmental psychology that studies the internal mental states of infants and very young children...

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