Cognitive Development: Definition, Theory, Stages

Cognitive Development Definition

Cognitive development is the study of childhood neurological and psychological development. Specifically, cognitive development is assessed based on the level of conception, perception, information processing, and language as an indicator of brain development. It is generally recognized that cognitive development progresses with age, as human awareness and understanding of the world increases from infancy to childhood, and then again into adolescence. The process of cognitive development was first described by Jean Piaget, in his Theory of Cognitive Development.

Theory of Cognitive Development

The Theory of Cognitive Development was established by Jean Piaget, and describes the development of cognition with age. While many aspects of the original theory of cognitive development have since been refuted, the objective characteristics associated with cognitive development remain valid. Such factors include the progression from the early perceptions and realization of object permanence during infancy, to the development of logic and cause-and-effect relationships during childhood, and finally the creation of abstract thought during adolescence. Recent theories in cogitative development have extended Piaget’s original theory by using current scientific approaches in neuroscience and psychology. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development involves the following distinct components:

  1. Schemas: Blocks of knowledge gained through experiences and interacting with the local environment.
  2. Assimilation: Applying new information into existing schemas.
  3. Adaptation: The ability to build on previous experiences and knowledge.
  4. Equilibration: When most new experiences fit within an existing schema. Cognitive progression occurs when information does not fit within an existing schema and poses a challenge.
  5. Four distinct stages of cognitive development (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stages).

Stages of Cognitive Development

The field of cognitive development was established by Jean Piaget, with his theory of cognitive development, involving the following four distinct stages:

Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage is the first stage of cognitive development and lasts from birth to two years of age. This stage is characterized by reflexive actions which lack logical thought processes and involve interacting with the environment based on a specific goal. There are six distinct substages of the sensorimotor stage, reflecting the rapid brain development that occurs during the first two years of life. The end of the sensorimotor stage ends when children begin to mentally consider reality, and the preoperational stage begins. The six substages are as follows:

1. Birth to one-month old

This stage is characterized by innate reflexes which are used to interact with the environment. These reflexes include, sucking, gripping, and touching.

2. One to four-months of age

This stage is an extension of the reflexes exhibited in newborn infants by repeating reflexive behaviors in response to pleasure experienced by the action. This stage is also characterized by “assimilation” and “accommodation” as a process of adaptation to the local environment. Assimilation involves responding to a novel stimulus consistent with previous reflexive experiences. For example, a new object introduced to an infant may be reflexively pulled into their mouth. Accommodation occurs when the infant is required to modify their response to a new object. For example, to place a novel object into their mouth, the infant may need to open their mouth wider.

3. Five to eight months of age

From the age of five to eight months, infants begin to recreate pleasurable experiences and form habits as a result. At this age, multitasking is not yet possible, and infants are easily distracted by other stimuli in the environment. Children within this age range enjoy toys that engage their intuitive nature by reacting to their actions (e.g., jack-in-the-box or toys with buttons that make sounds in response to pressure).

4. Eight to twelve months

At this age, infants begin to understand “object permanence”, which means that the infant comprehends that just because an object is out of sight, it still exists. This is significant because it means that the infant must form a mental image of the object. Infants also begin to differentiate between an object and the activity associated with that object. Infants also begin to display particular behaviors to elicit a known reaction.

5. Twelve to eighteen months

Infants during this developmental stage will engage in similar actions with slight deviations. For example, infants may throw a ball, and then throw a spoon, and then throw their food to gauge the consequence of that action.

6. Eighteen to twenty-four months

During this final sensorimotor phase, infants begin to pretend during their play and develop symbolic thought. The imagination begins to develop and actions are a result of intelligence rather than habit. This means that infants begin to apply the knowledge that they have learned within the first twenty-four months of life to novel situations.

Preoperational Stage

The preoperational stage ranges from two years to approximately six or seven years of age. During this stage, children have not yet developed the ability to acknowledge that others may have different experiences and engage in more complex pretend play.

Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage ranges from the age of six or seven to approximately twelve or thirteen. This stage is characterized by conservation, which involves the ability to discern whether two quantities are equivalent (e.g., the ability to recognize two equal amounts of water, one in a short glass and one in a tall glass as seen below).

Formal Operational Period

This stage occurs during adolescence, and is characterized by the application of logic to abstract thought. The ability to perform abstract thought is also applied to future goals and aspirations. Such thought processes progress from early operational thought involving fantasies to the late formal operational stage which transforms fantasies into realistic thoughts and obtainable goals.

Examples of Cognitive Development

Visual Perception

Some of the first cognitive developments that develops during the sensorimotor stage is depth, color, and motion perception. It remains debatable as to when these skills fully develop, and what specific experiences during early life help to develop visual perception.

Neurological Development

Another example of cognitive development is the neurological development which occurs in the brain. Such development is characterized by the neuroplasticity of the brain, which involves brain repair following injury and the ability of the brain to adapt to new environmental and physiological conditions. Another component of neurological development is the interaction between cultural experiences and the formation of neurological connections in the brain. For example, MRI studies have revealed that different neural pathways are used to perform the same task for individuals form different cultural backgrounds.

Language Development

One of the best-studied examples of cognitive development is language development. While some theories propose that language development is a genetically inherited skill common to all humans, others argue that social interactions are essential to language development. Most scientists recognize that language is influenced by the complex interaction between genetics and the environment. Language development can be further characterized into distinct process of learning, including the development of language sounds, organizing these sounds, forming the basic linguistic units (e.g., root words, tone, etc.), syntax (e.g., grammatically correct sentence patterns), the meaning of certain words or phrases, and the relationship between statements. Another aspect of cognitive development is bilingualism. Recent research indicates that bilingualism acts on the executive function of the brain because the selection of a particular language is an active process.

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