The Brain and the 5 Principal Cognitive Processes

Protected within the skull and by cerebrospinal fluid, the brain is the human body’s complex command center and the main component of the central nervous system along with the spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system consists of a dense network of spinal and cranial nerves.


An extremely complex organ with a large number of distinct, heterogeneous but interconnected structural components1, the brain is divided into two hemispheres by a deep longitudinal fissure but united by the corpus callosum and communicates through a dense network of nerve fibers that control the opposite parts of the body, respectively.

The cerebral cortex superficially covers it with vital cellular tissue and, also divided into a functional map, plays important roles such as handling sensory data and processing language, creating our conscious experience of the world.

The neuron is the basic cellular unit of nervous tissue capable of communicating at synapses by exchanging chemicals, called neurotransmitters, or electrical impulses.

Human cognitive functions depend on the activity and cohesiveness of vast populations of neurons in distributed networks subject to rapid plastic changes. Therefore, the passage from structure to function is essential in understanding how cognitive processes emerge from their morphological substrates.2

Cognitive processes embody all the functions the human mind uses to learn about and interact with the world around it. Both emotional state and proper brain and neural function influence them.

The 5 principal cognitive processes underlying nervous well-being are:

“Attention capacity” refers to the ability to choose items and information deemed relevant within a given context. If the attention capacity is sustained and protracted over time, it is defined as “concentration.” Attention and concentration are influenced by “motivation.”

All these components vary physiologically in each individual and are influenced by the body’s greater or lesser reactivity in response to various kinds of stimuli (subjective, environmental, and social, e.g., an exam, competition, an external attack). In neuropsychology, this condition is referred to as arousal. When the response to stimuli is ready and fast (high arousal), the individual is perceptive and intuitive; when the response to stimuli is low (low arousal), the individual is less ready to respond to stimuli. When arousal is too high or too low, pathological conditions such as hyperactivity and attention deficit, respectively, can manifest. On a physical and biochemical level, this activation state involves the nervous and endocrine systems. It is correlated not only with changes in specific parameters such as heart rate, sweating, and blood pressure but also with increased levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, with the activation of specific brain areas. Also, periods of physical and mental stress usually associated with fatigue and poor sleep quality promote a decrease in attention.3

Visual perception results from the brain’s interpretation of visual information captured by the eye, its analysis of phenomena (what we see, how we see it, the organization of space), and its successful assignment of complex meaning to visual stimulus. However, vision does not simply consist of a dioptric system forming the image on the retina and sending messages to the brain, which then processes and interprets them, but growing evidence suggests how the eyes, mind, and nervous system are closely related and how a relationship exists between visual disorder and an altered mental and behavioral state caused by inadequate adaptation between the subject and the surrounding environment. Here also, physical and mental stress, anxiety, and fatigue can affect the capacity for visual perception, along with the condition of the optic nerve and ocular system.4

Memory is the brain’s ability to retain information. In fact, the brain can assimilate and recall, in the form of memories, information learned during experiences. Mnemonic processes involve the hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebral cortex and are mediated by a series of neurotransmitters, including glutamate and acetylcholine. Anxiety, depression, and stress can have a negative impact, exacerbating memory and concentration difficulties fueled by a sense of helplessness over perceived cognitive difficulties. Pathophysiological mechanisms that adversely affect memory also include a chronic inflammatory state at the neuronal level where inflammatory mediators alter the structure of brain proteins, ultimately resulting in Alzheimer’s disease in the most severe and pathological cases. Pathological memory impairments often accompany excess oxidative stress, cognitive decline, and mitochondrial alterations that cause neuronal energy depletion, a progressive loss of cholinergic neurons and neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine.5

Processing speed is the rate at which a person gathers and reacts to information received.

Logical reasoning allows one to draw conclusions from a given premise utilizing logic and argumentation.

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  1. Sporns O, Tononi G, Ko¨tter R (2005) The human connectome: A structural description of the human brain. PLoS Comput Biol 1(4): e42.
  2. Mountcastle VB. Perceptual neuroscience: The cerebral cortex. Boston: Harvard University Press; 1998. 512. p.
  3. Coull JT. Neural correlates of attention and arousal: insights from electrophysiology, functional neuroimaging and psychopharmacology. Prog Neurobiol. 1998 Jul;55(4):343-61
  4. Chiara Di Capua, “Gli aspetti psicologici della visione: come il sistema nervoso interagisce con il sistema visivo. A.A. 2018/2019, Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II” Scuola Politecnica e delle Scienze di Base, Area Didattica di Scienze Matematiche Fisiche e Naturali. Dipartimento di Fisica “Ettore Pancini”
  5. Paterno R, Folweiler KA, Cohen AS. Pathophysiology and Treatment of Memory Dysfunction After Traumatic Brain Injury. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2017 Jul;17(7):52


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