Conclusion - Cognition, Consciousness, and Language

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

Cognition, Consciousness, and Language

One of the biggest questions that psychology and biology seek to answer is how the brain, an organ consisting of lipids, water, and neurotransmitters, becomes the mind. Cognition and consciousness allow us to think about who we are, where we are, and what we are doing at a given moment, and this all occurs due to a complex interaction between individual neurons within the brain. Not only do we experience consciousness, but our behaviors are also intricately intertwined with physiological brain function. Language is one of the most complex cognitive processes, requiring intact comprehension and production mechanisms and an understanding of the rules of our native language.

As much as we research what the mind is and how it works, there is as much interest in why we do what we do and how we feel about it. This is the function of motivation (both internal and external) and emotion, which we will explore in detail in the next chapter.

Concept Summary


· Thought is more than just that of which we are conscious. The brain processes and makes decisions about the importance of various stimuli below the level of conscious awareness.

· The information processing model states that the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information much like a computer.

· The ability to think abstractly develops over the life span. Early cognitive development is limited by brain maturation. Culture, genes, and environment also influence cognitive development.

· Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

o The sensorimotor stage focuses on manipulating the environment to meet physical needs through circular reactions. Object permanence ends this stage.

o The preoperational stage focuses on symbolic thinking, egocentrism, and centration.

o The concrete operational stage focuses on understanding the feelings of others and manipulating physical (concrete) objects.

o The formal operational stage focuses on abstract thought and problem solving.

· A mild level of cognitive decline while aging is normal; significant changes in cognition may signify an underlying disorder.

· Biological factors that affect cognition include organic brain disorders, genetic and chromosomal conditions, metabolic derangements, and drug use.

Problem Solving and Decision Making

· Problem solving requires identification and understanding of the problem, generation of potential solutions, testing of potential solutions, and evaluation of results.

o A mental set is a pattern of approach for a given problem. An inappropriate mental set may negatively impact problem solving.

o Functional fixedness is the tendency to use objects only in the way they are normally utilized, which may create barriers to problem solving.

· Types of problem solving include trial-and-error, algorithms, deductive reasoning (deriving conclusions from general rules), and inductive reasoning (deriving generalizations from evidence).

· Heuristics, biases, intuition, and emotions may assist decision making but may also lead to erroneous or problematic decisions.

o Heuristics are shortcuts or rules of thumb used to make decisions.

o Biases exist when an experimenter or decision maker is unable to objectively evaluate information.

o Intuition is a “gut feeling” regarding a particular decision. However, intuition can often be attributed to experience with similar situations.

o Emotional state often plays a role in decision making.

· Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences proposes seven areas of intelligence including: linguistic, logical—mathematical, musical, visual—spatial, bodily—kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

· Variations in intellectual ability can be attributed to combinations of environment, education, and genetics.


· States of consciousness include alertness, sleep, dreaming, and altered states of consciousness.

· Alertness is the state of being awake and able to think, perceive, process, and express information. Beta and alpha waves predominate on electroencephalography (EEG).

· Sleep is important for health of the brain and body.

o Stage 1 is light sleep and is dominated by theta waves on EEG. Stage 2 is slightly deeper and includes theta waves, sleep spindles, and K complexes.

o Stages 3 and 4 are deep (slow-wave) sleep (SWS). Delta waves predominate on EEG. Most sleep-wake disorders occur during Stage 3 and 4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Dreaming in SWS focuses on consolidating declarative memories.

o Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is sometimes called paradoxical sleep: the mind appears close to awake on EEG, but the person is asleep. Eye movements and body paralysis occur in this stage. Dreaming in REM focuses on consolidating procedural memories.

o The sleep cycle is approximately 90 minutes for adults; the normal cycle is Stage 1—2—3—4—3—2—REM or just 1—2—3—4—REM, although REM becomes more frequent toward the morning.

o Changes in light in the evening trigger release of melatonin by the pineal gland, resulting in sleepiness. Cortisol levels increase in the early morning and help promote wakefulness. Circadian rhythms normally trend around a 24-hour day.

o Most dreaming occurs during REM, but some dreaming occurs during other sleep stages. There are many different models that attempt to account for the content and purpose of dreaming.

o Sleep-wake disorders include dyssomnias, such as insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and sleep deprivation; and parasomnias, such as night terrors and sleepwalking (somnambulism).

· Hypnosis is a state of consciousness in which individuals appear to be in control of their normal faculties but are in a highly suggestible state. Hypnosis is often used for pain control, psychological therapy, memory enhancement, weight loss, and smoking cessation.

· Meditation involves a quieting of the mind and is often used for relief of anxiety. It has also played a role in many of the world’s religions.

Consciousness-Altering Drugs

· Consciousness-altering drugs are grouped by effect into depressants, stimulants, opiates, and hallucinogens.

o Depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. They promote or mimic GABA activity in the brain.

o Stimulants include amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy. They increase dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin concentration at the synaptic cleft.

o Opiates and opioids include heroin, morphine, opium, and prescription pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. They can cause death by respiratory depression.

o Hallucinogens include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), peyote, mescaline, ketamine, and psilocybin-containing mushrooms.

o Marijuana has depressant, stimulant, and hallucinogenic effects. Its active ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol.

· Drug addiction is mediated by the mesolimbic pathway, which includes the nucleus accumbens, medial forebrain bundle, and ventral tegmental area. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter in this pathway.


· Selective attention allows one to pay attention to a particular stimulus while determining if additional stimuli in the background require attention.

· Divided attention uses automatic processing to pay attention to multiple activities at one time.


· Language consists of phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics.

o Phonology refers to the actual sound of speech.

o Morphology refers to the building blocks of words, such as rules for pluralization (—s in English), past tense (—ed  ), and so forth.

o Semantics refers to the meaning of words.

o Syntax refers to the rules dictating word order.

o Pragmatics refers to the changes in language delivery depending on context.

· Theories of language development focus on different reasons or motivations for language acquisition.

o The nativist (biological) theory explains language acquisition as being innate and controlled by the language acquisition device (LAD).

o The learning (behaviorist) theory explains language acquisition as being controlled by operant conditioning and reinforcement by parents and caregivers.

o The social interactionist theory explains language acquisition as being caused by a motivation to communicate and interact with others.

· The Whorfian (linguistic relativity) hypothesis states that the lens through which we view and interpret the world is created by language.

· Speech areas in the brain are found in the dominant hemisphere, which is usually the left.

o The motor function of speech is controlled by Broca’s area. Damage results in Broca’s aphasia, a nonfluent aphasia in which generating each word requires great effort.

o Language comprehension is controlled by Wernicke’s area. Damage results in Wernicke’s aphasia, a fluent, nonsensical aphasia with lack of comprehension.

o The arcuate fasciculus connects Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Damage results in conduction aphasia, marked by the inability to repeat words heard despite intact speech generation and comprehension.

Answers to Concept Checks

· 4.1

1. The three steps in the information processing model are encoding, storage, and retrieval.

2. The elderly man most likely has delirium. The time course is incompatible with the slow decline of dementia.



Key Features


Focuses on manipulating environment for physical needs; circular reactions; ends with object permanence


Symbolic thinking, egocentrism, and centration

Concrete operational

Understands conservation and the feelings of others; can manipulate concrete objects logically

Formal operational

Can think abstractly and problem solve

· 4.2

1. Functional fixedness

2. Algorithm

3. Belief perseverance

4. The availability heuristic is used for making decisions based on how easily similar instances can be imagined. The representativeness heuristic is used for making decisions based on how much a particular item or situation fits a given prototype or stereotype.

· 4.3



EEG Waves



Beta and alpha

Able to perceive, process, access information, and express that information verbally

Stage 1


Light sleep and dozing

Stage 2


Sleep spindles and K complexes

Stage 3


Slow-wave sleep; dreams; declarative memory consolidation; sleep-wake disorders occur in this stage

Stage 4


Slow-wave sleep; dreams; declarative memory consolidation; sleep-wake disorders occur in this stage


Mostly beta

Appears awake physiologically; dreams; procedural memory consolidation; body is paralyzed

2. The two hormones most associated with maintaining circadian rhythms are melatonin and cortisol.

3. Dyssomnias are disorders in which the duration or timing of sleep is disturbed. Examples include insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. Parasomnias are disorders in which abnormal behaviors occur during sleep. Examples include night terrors and sleepwalking (somnambulism).

· 4.4

1. Drugs known to increase GABA activity in the brain include alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. Note that marijuana inhibits GABA activity.

2. Drugs known to increase dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin activity in the brain include amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy (MDMA). Ecstasy is a designer amphetamine; it is mentioned separately here because of its hallucinogenic properties.

3. The three main structures in the mesolimbic reward pathway are the nucleus accumbens, medial forebrain bundle, and ventral tegmental area. The neurotransmitter of this pathway is dopamine.

· 4.5

1. Controlled (effortful) processing is used when maintaining undivided attention on a task, and is usually used for new or complex actions. Automatic processing is used for less critical stimuli in divided attention, and is usually used for familiar or repetitive actions.

2. The filter in selective attention permits us to focus on one set of stimuli while scanning other stimuli in the background for important information (such as our name or a significant change in the environment).

· 4.6




9 to 12 months


12 to 18 months

Increase of about one word per month

18 to 20 months

“Explosion of language” and combining words (two-word sentences)

2 to 3 years

Longer sentences of three or more words

5 years

Language rules largely mastered

2. The primary trigger in the nativist theory is an innate ability to pick up language via the language acquisition device. In the learning theory, it is operant conditioning with reinforcement by parents and caregivers. In the social interactionist theory, it is a desire to communicate and act socially.

3. Broca’s aphasia is marked by difficulty producing language, with hesitancy and great difficulty coming up with words. Wernicke’s aphasia is fluent, but includes nonsensical sounds and words devoid of meaning; language comprehension is lost. Conduction aphasia is marked by difficulty repeating speech, with intact speech production and comprehension.

Equation to Remember


Shared Concepts

· Behavioral Sciences Chapter 1

o Biology and Behavior

· Behavioral Sciences Chapter 3

o Learning and Memory

· Behavioral Sciences Chapter 6

o Identity and Personality

· Behavioral Sciences Chapter 11

o Social Structure and Demographics

· Biology Chapter 4

o The Nervous System

· Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Chapter 6

o Formal Logic

Discrete Practice Questions

1. Which of the following terms describes how existing schemata are modified to incorporate new information?

1. Assimilation

2. Adaptation

3. Affirmation

4. Accommodation

2. Which of the following of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development occur before adolescence?

1. Preoperational

2. Sensorimotor

3. Formal operational

4. I only

5. II only

6. I and II

7. II and III

3. A student is volunteering in a hospital with a stroke center. When asked what he believes is the prevalence of stroke among those greater than 65 years old, the student states that it is probably about 40% even though data analysis indicates that it is significantly lower. What accounts for this error?

1. Deductive reasoning

2. Representativeness heuristic

3. Base rate fallacy

4. Confirmation bias

4. Which of the following types of intelligence is NOT described by Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences?

1. Fluid intelligence

2. Bodily—kinesthetic intelligence

3. Visual—spatial intelligence

4. Linguistic intelligence

5. EEG waveforms during REM sleep most resemble which of the following states of consciousness?

1. Alertness

2. Slow-wave sleep

3. Stage 1 sleep

4. Meditation

6. Which of the following indicates the pattern of sleep stages during a complete sleep cycle early in the night?

1. 1—2—3—4—1—2—REM

2. 1—2—3—4—3—2—REM

3. 4—3—2—1—2—3—REM

4. 4—3—2—4—3—1—REM

7. Increases in which of the following hormones cause sleepiness?

1. Cortisol

2. Growth hormone

3. Melatonin

4. Oxytocin

8. Which theory of dreaming states that dreams and thoughts during wakeful periods use the same stream-of-consciousness system?

1. Activation—synthesis theory

2. Problem solving theory

3. Cognitive process theory

4. Neurocognitive theory

9. A 19-year-old college student is picked up by campus police after shoplifting a large bag of corn chips and a dozen ice cream sandwiches. His eyes are bloodshot. During questioning, he repeatedly asks for water because his mouth is dry and he cannot stop giggling. What is the psychoactive substance in the drug this student has most likely recently taken?

1. Alprazolam

2. 3,4-Methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine

3. Diacetylmorphine

4. Tetrahydrocannabinol

10. Language consists of multiple components. Which of the following involves the order in which words are put together?

1. Phonology

2. Semantics

3. Syntax

4. Pragmatics

11. A child speaks in sentences of at least 3 words, but makes grammatical errors including misuse of the past tense. How old is this child likely to be?

1. 14 months

2. 22 months

3. 30 months

4. 5 years

12. Which language theory states that language development occurs due to preferential reinforcement of certain phonemes by parents and caregivers?

1. Nativist theory

2. Learning theory

3. Social interactionist theory

4. Neurocognitive theory

13. A stroke patient comprehends speech but cannot properly move her mouth to form words. Which of the following brain areas is likely affected?

1. Broca’s area

2. Wernicke’s area

3. Arcuate fasciculus

4. Superior temporal gyrus

14. A nine-year-old girl is brought to the pediatrician. Her parents describe that any time she is startled, she appears to collapse and fall asleep. She also complains of waking up in the morning unable to move. Which sleep disorder should be suspected?

1. Insomnia

2. Sleep deprivation

3. Narcolepsy

4. Sleep apnea

15. During which of the following stages does dreaming occur?

1. Stage 3

2. Stage 4

3. REM

4. I only

5. II only

6. III only

7. I, II, and III

Discrete Practice Answers

1. DJean Piaget hypothesized that new information is processed by adaptation, (B). Adaptation is too broad of an answer because it includes both assimilation, (A), and accommodation, (D). Assimilation is incorporation of new information into existing schemata. If the new information doesn’t fit, then accommodation occurs. Accommodation is the modification of existing schemata to account for new information and is thus the correct answer.

2. CThe sensorimotor, preoperational, and concrete operational stages occur prior to adolescence. The formal operational stage generally coincides with adolescence.

3. CThe base rate fallacy occurs when prototypical or stereotypical factors are used for analysis rather than actual data. Because the student is volunteering in a hospital with a stroke center, he sees more patients who have experienced a stroke than would be expected in a hospital without a stroke center. Thus, this experience changes his perception and results in base rate fallacy. Deductive reasoning, (A), refers to drawing conclusions by integrating different pieces of evidence. The representativeness heuristic, (B), involves categorization and classification based on how well an individual example fits its category. Confirmation bias, (D), occurs when a person only seeks information that reinforces his or her opinions.

4. AFluid intelligence consists of problem-solving skills and is not one of Gardner’s seven multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory lists linguistic, logical—mathematical, musical, visual—spatial, bodily—kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences.

5. AEEG during REM is composed mainly of beta waves, which are present during alertness. SWS, (B), consists mainly of delta waves, which are not typically present during REM sleep. Stage 1 sleep, (C), consists mainly of theta waves. Meditation, (D), is quieting of the mind, and consists mainly of slow alpha and theta waves.

6. BEarly in the evening, sleep cycles include deepening of sleep (Stages 1—2—3—4), followed either by lightening of sleep (Stages 4—3—2) and then REM, or just directly moving from Stage 4 into REM. Later in the evening, the cycle may be shortened as slow-wave sleep becomes less common.

7. CAs light diminishes throughout the day, the pineal gland increases secretion of melatonin, resulting in sleepiness. Cortisol levels, (A), increase throughout the early morning, resulting in wakefulness. Growth hormone secretion, (B), peaks during slow-wave sleep. Oxytocin, (D), is associated with uterine contractions in childbirth, milk letdown, and bonding behavior.

8. CCognitive theorists proposed in the cognitive process dream theory that wakeful and dreaming states use the same mental systems within the brain, particularly stream-of-consciousness. The activation—synthesis theory, (A), states that dreams are caused by widespread, random activation of neural circuitry. The problem solving dream model, (B), indicates that dreams are used to solve problems while sleeping due to untethering of dreams from obstacles perceived while awake. The neurocognitive theorists, (D), seek to unify cognitive and biological perspectives by correlating the subjective dream experience with the physiological experience of dreaming.

9. DThe description of the student matches the clinical features of marijuana (cannabis) use: hunger (presumably, based on his loot), redness of the eyes, dry mouth, and euphoria. Marijuana may also cause an increased heart rate, short-term memory loss, paranoia, and—in high doses—hallucinations. Tetrahydrocannabinol is the primary active substance in marijuana.

10. CSyntax refers to how words are put together to form sentences and create meaning. Phonology, (A), refers to the actual sounds of a language. Semantics, (B), refers to the association of meaning with a word. Pragmatics, (D), refers to changes in usage, wording, and inflection based on context.

11. CA child who speaks in three-word sentences but has not yet mastered most of the fundamental rules of language, including past tense, is likely to be between two and three years old.

12. BLearning theory, largely based on the work of B. F. Skinner, states that parents reinforce phonemes that sound most like their language, resulting in preferential preservation of these phonemes. Nativist theory, (A), posits a critical period during which language acquisition occurs. Social interactionist theory, (C), indicates that language develops via interaction with parents and caregivers as well as a desire of the child to communicate. Neurocognitive theory, (D), is concerned with the subjective experience of dreaming and the physiology of dreaming.

13. ABroca’s area governs the motor function of language. A stroke that affects Broca’s area will leave receptive language intact, but word formation will be affected. A stroke affecting Wernicke’s area, (B), will make it so the individual is unable to comprehend speech. A stroke affecting the arcuate fasciculus, (C), will result in an inability to repeat words heard but spontaneous language production is intact. The superior temporal gyrus, (D), is where Wernicke’s area is located.

14. CThe patient and her parents are describing cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone and intrusion of REM sleep during waking hours, usually in response to a startling or emotional trigger) and sleep paralysis (an inability to move despite being awake, usually when waking up in the morning). These symptoms are highly suggestive of narcolepsy; in fact, some consider cataplexy to be pathognomonic for (absolutely indicative of) the disorder.

15. DAbout 75% of dreaming occurs during REM, but dreams occur in all other stages of sleep as well. More bizarre dreams are likely to occur during REM.

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