PART I: Cognition and Learning


Language: A Multifaceted Method of Learning

Alexander Foroughi; Kamilah Blake; and Hannah Rasmussen

As the fields of Cognitive Psychology and neuroscience continue to advance in remarkable ways, research reveals how we learn best—what grasps our attention, and what helps us encode information into long-term memory. This research, new models, and theories allow for novel ideas on what we can do to help ourselves take advantage of the way our brains are wired, in terms of how we can improve studying and learning new information. Among skills which we can learn to utilize to enhance learning, language is essential: spoken, heard, and written. Although our brains have not evolved in a way which emphasizes the importance of written language, the skills of reading and writing demand our attention and focus in academia. Therefore, it becomes essential to find ways to enhance these cognitive skills in order to learn effectively and efficiently.


Cognition can be defined as mental processes which enable us to persist, survive, and make wise choices (Kleinknecht, 2020). In other words, these “brain states” are what help us navigate through our world and serve to keep us adaptable. One of the most remarkable mental processes humans have evolved to use everyday is language—an ability not unique to our own species, but indeed a capability which is by far the most complex and various in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. Our complex ability to communicate through language is evident on many levels: every day, we use our ability to read alphabetical letters, graphic symbols and icons; we listen and understand sound waves and assign to them semantic meaning; and we recreate those sound waves ourselves through our mouths and vocal cords. In breaking down the basics of language, we are able to see how amazingly complicated and specialized the skill of language really is, as well as how we can utilize them in our studying.




The study of our cognitive processes such as language is relatively young within the field of psychology, as Behaviorism dominated psychological interests for the majority of the field’s early history (Goldstein, 2019, p. 10-11). The invention of computers and the introduction of computer science in the 1950s ignited a spark within the community of psychologists who were interested in our cognitive abilities. Cognitive psychologists looked at how computers stored information through inputs and outputs and realized that our brains work in a similar way—first by encoding information, then storing that information as a code in a “folder” for later, and then finally retrieving that code and accessing the memory (Kleinknecht, 2020). As the technological age advanced, the technology and machinery to study and observe the brain more directly continued to develop, leading to the Cognitive Revolution which eventually dominated over the paradigm of Behaviorism.


Though many questions in the field of psychology still remain to be answered, the advancement of these technologies helped psychologists and neurologists jump leaps and bounds ahead scientifically in understanding cognition and how the brain works. Machines like PET scans, EEG’s, and fMRI scans allowed for more direct and scientific examination of the brain: EEG reads the tiny electrical signals emitted by our neurons in the brain; PET scans allowed for newfound measurement of blood flow to the brain through functioning as a metabolic glucose tracer; and the invention of the fMRI scan expanded on showing blood flow to the brain through tracing oxygen cells, increasing accuracy and resolution of brain reads (Goldstein, 2019). The invention of scientific machinery added so much more value and depth to studying cognitive processes, as cognitive experiments and knowledge were previously limited to more simple, observational studies such as Fransiscus Donders’ assumptions on reaction time (Kleinknecht, 2020).


It is important to know that while these machines have helped us with immense breakthroughs in the field of cognitive psychology, they are not exactly perfect reads of brain activity. The current technology does not allow us to watch exactly what is happening in the brain as though it were a video—it is more comparable to a stop-motion animation wherein the machine takes rapid-fire photos of brain activity and then strings those photos together. Color is then added later to the photos or animation in order to add visual contrast, so that we can see the important bits of the brain activity that we are interested in studying, helping us to make better sense of the read (Kleinknecht, 2020).




A Universal Need for Language. Human language is very creative in how it is strung together; providing spoken, written and sign based formats that can be used to transmit a message from one person to another. Try to imagine a world without language systems, in whatever forms they may take, trying to communicate as quickly and efficiently as we do now. Though this may be easy for the many people who speak sign language, it is hard to imagine communication without spoken words because even as you try, you are utilizing language to describe it to yourself. The need to communicate is an important and powerful evolutionary human feature, so much so that when deaf children are presented with a situation where there is no communication, they will invent their own form of language to communicate (Goldstein, 2019, p. 323).


Language also occurs universally across cultures and develops in very similar ways. With more than 5,000 different languages, there is not one single culture without a language or basis of communication (Goldstein, 2019, p. 323). No matter the culture or the language used, children start to attempt communication by babbling at around 7 months of age and continue developing skills of the language they are surrounded by as they grow, eventually being able to string words together and have meaning with them by about the age of 3 (Goldstein, 2019, p. 323).


The universal need to communicate is a shared trait, and communication across different languages is still very possible through other forms of communication such as gestures and drawings. As humans, we do not like the feeling of not knowing things as it presents an unsettling feeling; therefore, we strive to understand others as well as be understood. So when presented with a situation wherein we do not understand, we look for other ways to help us know what the other person is trying to communicate, and we take on other forms of language and communication.


For example, imagine you are an employee at a grocery store and someone who is deaf and cannot lip-read is wanting to know where the bread is at. As the employee who does not speak sign language, you can not directly say the isle number, so instead you use your fingers to show what number isle it is located at. The reverse is the same for the customer, where they may have never heard spoken language so they cannot verbally ask where the bread is. Instead, they might gesture and use hand communication to describe what a loaf of bread looks like, or possibly use written language by pointing to their grocery list in order to communicate what they are looking for. The need for communication is so essential across a variety of situations that humans have used their creative language skills, not only in the written and spoken forms, to find the best way to interact with one another and transmit messages.


Function & Structure of Language in Cortex. Localization of function in language can be observed and partially confirmed through our technology of bra

in scans. Two specific areas that are only known to activate when engaging with language are Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, discovered at first by damage done to these locations, which lead to deficits in language ability (Goldstein, 2019, p. 39). Broca’s area is found in the frontal lobe, somewhat near the strip of the primary motor cortex, and is associated with the production of language. Damage to Broca’s area leads to what is known as Broca’s aphasia, where speech becomes slow, labored, and ungrammatical. Wernicke’s area, located toward the back of the temporal lobe, is associated with the comprehension of language. Damage to Wernicke’s area is known as Wernicke’s aphasia, and results in a person producing meaningless speech, as well as being unable to comprehend the speech of others (Goldstein, 2019, p. 39). These two separate areas of the brain show us how the ability to understand and produce language are different, fundamental pieces involved in the “bigger picture” that is our ability to communicate with each other through language.

Though Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are surely language hotspots which are found to be active when engaging with language, there are other more complex ways to understand the brain’s structure and its wiring. Localization of function is a more outdated way to think about the brain’s structure—there are not necessarily highly specified parts of the brain which only exist for responses to certain tasks or abilities (Goldstein, 2019). Instead, our brain cells form into assemblies and neural networks, wherein activation of just one cell can cause activation of others in the network, in a chain-like reaction. In terms of the ability of language, this concept of spreading activation better explains how we can explore more conceptual and contextual ideas.


For example, imagine a scenario in which a friend of yours is describing to you a type of flower they saw, and you are someone who knows a lot about various types of flora. Your friend says it had a long stem, white and somewhat pointed petals that curved over at the top, and a yellow center with a ruffly rim sticking out. Each descriptive word your friend gives you activates sets of neurons which are responding to those words, based on your previous experience with said words. When you tell your friend, “That sounds like a daffodil,” it is the activation of neural networking in your brain that is responsible for your ability to identify the type of flower you are imagining.


Understanding Written Language. Written language is part of our everyday experience. Whether it be reading a text book for class or road signs to know where you are going, it surrounds us in all aspects of our day. As we know, sentences have more meaning than a single word does—and as there are more sentences, higher amounts of comprehension are involved, such as when you are reading a story. When reading written language, an important part of the process is making inferences to determine what the text means based on the knowledge we already have (Goldstein, 2019, p. 337). Making inferences is a key component in reading written language, because without being able to tie together what you already know and what you are now reading, there is no way to continue understanding the information you are presented with—and it becomes incoherent.


Think about a time you were trying to read something, but at some point you realized it was not making any sense, and there was something about it that was just not clicking for you in your mind. Your brain was not able to absorb the information or engage in the process of understanding, because the words or the concepts used in the text were so unfamiliar to you. If it is your first time reading a certain kind of book or writing style, or you have never learned the vocabulary involved in the text, you are unable to use any past knowledge to connect to your present experience. In other words, our ability to make inferences is due to our ability to “connect the present to the past,” as we must be able to apply things we have learned in the past in order to help understand what is happening in the present (Kleinknecht, 2020).


There are many different types of inferences we can use to help us understand written language, and these help us create situation models in our mind to help us understand the purposes of messages. A situational model “simulates the perceptual and motor characteristics” about what we are reading, giving us a clear mental image of what is occurring in the text (Goldstein, 2019, p 339). When looking at ERP results from those who were given a particular sentence to read, it is found that as we read, situational models are activated and include lots of details when we already know about a given situation (Goldstein, 2019, p 341). This indicates that reading and understanding written text is a creative and very dynamic process.


The Effects of Perception on Language. In thinking about how we understand language, we must also consider how our perception has an effect. Both bottom-up processing (the processing of information starting from environmental stimuli) and top-down processing (processing that begins in the brain with one’s own previous knowledge or expectations) are involved in how we perceive language (Goldstein, 2019, p.67). These two processes occur almost simultaneously, creating fluid thought which is influenced by our past experiences (Kleinknecht, 2020). Applying this to our perception of language, we use our previous experience with language and conversing with people to “fill in the gaps” when someone speaks with incorrect grammar, says the wrong word, or accidentally leaves out information we can glean from context (Goldstein, 2019, p. 87). In other words, we are still able to understand the person we are speaking with when they make minor mistakes in language, because we can use our perception of the context and our prior knowledge to connect the dots. This would be an example of how our brains use top-down processing in understanding language. Additionally, our perception of the pitch and prosody in spoken word affects how we understand the message being said. A similar concept happens in written language, with how italics can be used to demonstrate emphasis, boldface can be used to show importance, and capital letters can be perceived as AGGRESSIVE or LOUD. These are great examples of how bottom-up processing affects our understanding of language, as our brains are responding to the environmental stimuli within the message.


Creating Neural Networks: “Webs of Knowledge”. With the power of words in mind, the question arises: how do you encode and engrain new experiences, thoughts, and knowledge—and how can this encoding process be aided by our language abilities? Our ability to comprehend language encompasses many different forms of communication, such as spoken and heard word, written word, body-kinesthetic movements such as sign language and “body language,” and iconic or symbolic images. All of these components of language can be used as cues to increase learning and strengthen neural networks.


Every thought and action is the result of neurons firing. When a neuron fires, the neural pathway associated with that thought or action strengthens (Goldstein, 2019). This means the probability of the neural pathway firing again increases each time the pathway is used. In practical terms, the more an idea is rehearsed, the easier it is to access that same information again. Naturally, it follows that this concept is important for learning. A common studying strategy is to review the same set of information multiple times until the neural pathways are strong enough for you to remember with ease. This is surely an effective method for memorizing information—however, you can maximize your time by engaging more parts of the brain in the process.


Stimulating multiple areas of the brain at once will create several neural pathways opposed to one (Kleinknecht, 2020). As a result, the information stored will be easier to access again later since the neural connections are spread across more areas of the brain. Recalling just one of the neural pathways associated with the information can trigger the other associated pathways to fire, a phenomenon called encoding variability. Utilizing encoding variability leads to greater chance of memory recall, as there are more potential networks associated with the information that can be pulled from. From effective use of encoding variability comes conceptual “webs of knowledge” across cortex, which are easily searchable due to multiple points of accessibility (Kleinknecht, 2020). With this in mind, creating a multidimensional learning experience—an experience that involves multiple ways of interacting with the material, leading to combinations of different sensory experiences spread throughout the brain—has been demonstrated to be more effective at improving memory and comprehension (Kleinknecht, 2020).



The Wise Intervention Model:  Attitudes & Learning. Combining what we know about language and cognition, we can create better learning environments. Wise interventions like the Jigsaw classroom and Sketchnoting integrate our understanding of language with cognition to improve students’ learning outcomes. These interventions assist in the process of relating new information to your previous knowledge and experiences. This creates a larger emotional investment in learning. Researchers have found that positive emotional engagement with new material improves people’s abilities to encode it (Kort, Reilly, & Picard, 2001).


The Wise Intervention Model is a psychological program designed to change people’s inferences about themselves, others, and their social situation. Walton & Wilson (2018) invented the model with many principles from cognitive psychology in mind. Their model suggests that inferences dictate human behavior, and as a result, manipulating people’s inferences about themselves and their situations can change their behavior (p. 618).  Their model also suggests humans are self-fulfilling creatures, and people are likely to behave in accordance with their attitudes. This is important for understanding and encoding information, because people can have maladaptive attitudes about learning which hinder their abilities to process information.


Students can have either a fixed or growth mindset about their learning abilities. A fixed mindset is the belief intelligence is a trait that is developed at birth, with little that can be done to influence it. A growth mindset is believing that intelligence is not a trait; instead, a growth mindset believes that with practice comes improvement, so intelligence can grow over time. Researchers have found having a fixed mindset decreases students’ abilities to learn. Meanwhile, having a growth mindset has been shown to improve students’ abilities to learn. This demonstrates the self-fulfilling nature of the human brain. Additionally, it shows how important language can be in the formation of our attitudes—and consequently, our behaviors, such as what we end up learning.


For example, Hulleman & Harackie (2009) found that prompting ninth graders to write about their experiences with their coursework improved their grades. The pair of researchers instructed a science class to write short journal entries once a month about the relevance of their classwork to their lives. This forced students to generate positive attitudes about their relationships with school. These positive attitudes eventually became self-fulfilling, and students in the class who were among a demographic expected to perform poorly had better grades after the intervention. This shows the power of language and “putting words to paper,” as the act of making mental connections through writing was able to increase engagement with the material. This boost in engagement led to higher grades.


Similarly, the jigsaw classroom and sketchnoting force people to form positive relationships with new material through language. These positive relationships help guide a person’s negative inferences into more beneficial beliefs for learning. Researchers have collected lots of information suggesting sketchnoting and jigsaw classrooms improve students’ abilities to encode information and perform in the classroom. Sketchnoting allows the individual to integrate new information with an icon of personal significance. In the jigsaw classroom, students personalize information through speech. Both interventions, like Hulleman & Harackie’s study (2000), utilize different modes of language to adjust people’s attitudes and improve their learning capabilities. The traditional Western classroom does not allow students to engage with the material in these novel ways. Sketchnoting and jigsaw classrooms are becoming increasingly popular as people begin to take notice of research and the importance of cognition science in learning.


Traditional vs. Jigsaw Classroom Settings. The school system has changed tremendously over the centuries, and we can continue to change classrooms now to create better learning outcomes for students using our knowledge of cognitive science and educational research. Conveying information is central to learning and relies largely upon language. Since language as a cognitive process has its various components of functions spread throughout the brain, we can see how important it is to stimulate the whole brain in the learning process. Though Broca’s area is utilized when speaking and Wernicke’s area is utilized when listening, both areas have overlapping functions (Goldstein, 2019, p. 39). As described earlier, the brain can be conceptualized as a large neural network with spread functionality and many pathways.


Traditional Western schooling is primarily a perceptual experience: students listen to the teacher and read the textbook, mostly engaging with the material through their occipital and temporal lobes. As a result, students tend to directly copy down what they hear from the teacher or what they read in the textbook, rather than thinking of the material in a new way or describing it with their own words. The structure of Western classrooms provides students with only a few opportunities to engage with information, which limits the potential neural pathways they can create. According to Dipper, Black, & Bryan (2005) there are fundamental differences between “Thinking for speaking,” and “Thinking for listening.” They explain that the process of transforming thoughts into language involves, “paring down a complex conceptual representation into a schematic linguistic form, involving subcomponent processes such as focusing on some aspects of temporal, relational and perspective information, back grounding other aspects, and stripping away the rest” (p. 424). This process of producing language or speech involves top-down processing at a deep level. Cognitive psychologists argue that deep processing is more effective for activating your long term memory, as opposed to shallow processing (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).


The Jigsaw classroom is a wise intervention which exemplifies how an environment with a more interactive, well rounded learning experience than a traditional classroom can be implemented to support better learning. Since it provides the opportunity for students to talk, listen, and rehearse their ideas several times, it engages the brain with the learning material in several different ways. In the Jigsaw classroom, students are responsible for teaching each other. Students are assigned to small research groups, each of which has a specific topic of focus that builds in together with the other groups to create a larger classroom theme or idea. Every student gathers information and presents it to their research group. The research group then comes to a shared conclusion about what they learned together. Finally, they present that information to the whole class. Throughout this process students are constantly cycling between states of listening and reciting information. This creates a more widely-spread activation of the brain, or distributed representation maximizing learning potential. Additionally, information rehearsal is a large part of the Jigsaw classroom methodology, which strengthens the newly forming neural networks. Researchers have demonstrated Jigsaw classrooms improve students’ learning outcomes (Ghaith & El-Malak, 2004). The Jigsaw classroom works upon already known cognitive principles to create a streamlined learning experience that increases memory and comprehension.


Sketchnoting as a Language Form. Similarly, sketchnoting is a studying and note taking strategy involving drawing that works upon these cognitive principles to improve learning. Sketchnoting consists of drawing pictures and symbols in lecture and reading notes to represent bits of information, the icons acting as cues for the learning material. This wise intervention has the potential to help students in many cognitive practices— among them being our basic perception of language. Perception and language comprehension are ambiguous—as aforementioned when discussing top-down processing and written language, we infer meaning from stimuli based upon our past experiences (Goldstein, 2019, p. 87). Dipper et al. (2005) state, “Language information on its own, provides only skeletal detail” (p. 430). For example, take the sentence: “She left the barber shop a year ago.” Dipper et al. explain that the word “leave” in this sentence only provides information that there was motion—it does not “disambiguate the motion in the sentence” (p. 430). The word “leave” in this context could indicate she moved from a status of employment to unemployment, or it could indicate physically moving out of the barber shop to another location.


In a learning environment, sketchnoting could be used as a tool to reduce the ambiguity in language by providing additional stimuli to cross reference with what you are perceiving. Written alphabetic languages have taken over as the dominant modes of communication now, especially in school settings, despite humans initially developing language through the use of icons and symbols (Kleinknecht, 2020). Humans have evolved over thousands of years to decipher and create symbols. Over time, this method of communication has been circulated out of society for appearing to be inefficient, unsophisticated, and inferior. Although, in reality, all modes of language are symbol systems—letters just appear less picturesque. Alphabetic languages have icons, or letters which create symbols or words. Each of these letters and words can then further be represented by sounds, which are simply alternative ways to symbolize them, allowing us to read and vocalize them.


When it comes to symbols, we recognize lines and shapes as patterns and extrapolate their meaning to turn them into words or concepts (Kleinknecht, 2020). This is very similar to the process of turning language into speech. Symbols in themselves have meaning and we repackage them into words, which create a new way to describe them. This is important to understand as iconic communication should be taken as seriously as any other form of language for learning purposes.


A picture can provide just as valuable information as a written sentence or phrase, and using the two in conjunction can provide a deeper understanding of the material. For example, let’s revisit sentence “She left the barber shop a year ago,” and add an image to represent the sentence:

“She left the barber shop a year ago.”

By reading the sentence and looking at the image together, we can clearly understand that she left her job at the barbershop a year ago. Tying this into the previously discussed section on written language, the image helps us make an inference so that we receive the written message well. Imagery reduces the ambiguity of the sentence by providing visual context, hence demonstrating that sketchnoting could potentially do the same for us when it comes time to study and review our notes.


Sketchnoting:  Improving Attention & Memory. By concept, sketchnoting has the potential to draw attention to important information. When it comes to studying and learning, attention is key—the capturing or commitment of our attention is the first step in the process of encoding information to memory. Evolutionarily, we can think of attention as an adaptation that helps us to survive; it helps us respond quickly and reasonably to environmental stimuli (Goldstein, 2019). Especially in school, we have to exert selective attention throughout the day in order to succeed, and we may find ourselves fighting against this natural tendency to react to distractions in the environment.


However, we can learn to take advantage of the way that our brains are wired, and utilize our evolutionary tendency toward attention capture for academic purposes. For survival and energy efficiency purposes, our brains evolved to simplify our surroundings by making perceptual groupings, and our eyes have evolved to be naturally drawn to objects (Kleinknecht, 2020). This is why a stream of words on paper is often not enough to capture our attention; apart from considering the content or context, combinations of letters are not appealing enough to us on a visual level. This is where organizing notes and sketchnoting come in, allowing us to guide our attention through grouping information, and stimulating our attention through imagery. As a studying tactic, this allows for room for our tendency toward attentional capture, but using it in a way which will be productive and beneficial.


Once we successfully focus our attention to a task, there comes the potential for committing the material to memory. In order to understand our concept of memory at a basic level, we describe it in two parts: working memory and long-term memory. The two are constantly interacting with one another: our understanding of what is going on in the present (being processed by our working memory) is relying on knowledge from our past experiences (retrieved from long-term memory) (Goldstein, 2019). This process is not as simple as the traditional concept of “storage”—as if there is a special unit where the brain tucks away neatly-packed boxes. Rather, it is complicated and dynamic, with activation flowing across the cortex and the likelihood of memory retrieval depending upon frequency and strength of synaptic connections (Kleinknecht, 2020).


Like the Jigsaw classroom, sketchnoting involves the rehearsal of information, which then leads to strengthening those specific neural pathways. Mina, Cyamani, & Paepcke-Hjeltness (2017) state sketchnoting “applies dual coding theory by combining both words and images,” creating a distributed representation of cognition across the brain (p. 1). Dual coding theory proposes that providing two representations of information will help people comprehend and remember the information better. This proves especially helpful when considering our capacity for memory—though universal, it is limited by quality of information (Kleinknecht, 2020). In terms of language, this means length of words and the degree of conceptual or semantic complexity of the information. In other words, a list of shorter words with more concrete meanings (e.g. apple, cat, dog, tree) will be easier to memorize than a list of long words with more unfamiliar or complex meanings (e.g. equipotentiality, keratosis pilaris, hermeneutics, ionosphere). Through dual encoding, sketchnoting can help strengthen pathways for more abstract concepts by creating icons which help associate the bigger idea with a simplified, visual cue. For example, a student studying dermatology could remember the skin condition keratosis pilaris, nicknamed “chicken skin,” by drawing a chicken in that section of their notes. The doodles may appear silly to some on the surface, but there is some evidence that this really works.


Wammes et al. (2014) conducted a study which measured participants’ ability to memorize a list of words after drawing or writing them out. They found that people in the drawing group remembered more items on the list than the group who only wrote the words out (Wammes, Meade, & Fernandes, 2014). This supports the current cognitive theory that sketchnoting can improve memory, learning, and comprehension. Sketchnoting is a great new example of how the cognitive theory of dual encoding can be used in combination with various types of language in order to find better ways to absorb information.



Language can be utilized in many novel ways to encourage academic success. Interventions such as sketchnoting and jigsaw classrooms reframe our attitudes and mindsets about learning material by engaging us personally with language. Language is a form of creative expression that is all too often stifled by learning environments and societal norms. Since the subfield of cognitive psychology is continually making advances in understanding the brain and how it functions, we can utilize our knowledge to create better learning environments which capitalize on our brain’s talents. One important step is to use our unique ability to engage with language in multiple ways—whether it be spoken word, written word, body language, or icons or symbols—and to foster learning environments which value this complex capability of the human brain.  Reinterpreting information through our own words, pictures, or speech has a powerful effect on memory and comprehension.  Though many of us take our daily use of language for granted and may think of it as more normal than spectacular, we can learn its fundamental value and use its many pieces to become better students, educators, and researchers.



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What is Cognitive Psychology Good For? Wise Interventions for Personal Growth Copyright © 2020 by Alexander Foroughi; Kamilah Blake; and Hannah Rasmussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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