Are you familiar with the cognitive processes of attention, working memory, inhibition, and metacognition? If you already have an idea of what they do and how they work, you may not know what neuroscience has discovered about them in recent years. To satisfy your curiosity and enhance your learning, here are five surprising and useful facts about some of our cognitive processes.

The expanded role of attention

Together with working memory, attention enables the brain to select information for processing. What is less well known is that it also enables us to maintain or vary the level of processing of this information. Attention is, therefore, not only the gateway to learning and the first of its four pillars; it also acts as a transversal process to all cognitive functions (Amso and Scerif, 2015). Thus, the mechanisms of the attentional system are linked to those of visual processing, memory, and learning.

A trainable working memory

Our working memory enables us to retain information and juggle with it for a few tens of seconds. This short-term memory, which demands our attention, can only retain between 1 and 7 ± 2 items, a capacity that varies from one individual to another as we grow up. Neuroscience has shown that it can be trained – by practicing recalling, for example, items seen on a screen – and that such training increases the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (executive control) as well as their connectivity with the parietal cortex, a cortex involved in several cognitive processes, including those requiring visuospatial perception (Constantinidis and Klingberg, 2016; Jaeggi et al., 2008; Klingberg, 2010; Klingberg et al. 2005; McNab et al., 2009; Olesen et al., 2004).

An effective strategy for helping working memory to handle more information and thus solve more complex problems is to train oneself to combine information. For example, rather than remembering the numbers 2, 5 and 7 separately, it’s better to remember a single number that combines them, i.e. 257, and thus reduce the attentional resources required by working memory. Note that when we are subjected to a continuous stream of information, as in an enumeration, we tend to retain the first and last items of information presented but escape those in the middle.

The extent of our inhibitory connections

You may be surprised to learn that half of the connections in your brain are “inhibitory,” i.e. they signal nerve impulses not to propel their activity but to cease. Cognitive inhibition is the ability to resist distractions or block an automatic response and create responses by using attention and reasoning. Regardless of context, our brains are designed to identify regularities in the environment – a cognitive strategy known as heuristics thinking – which, while adequate in a given context, will later be generalized to other contexts, prompting us to make systematic mistakes and making us victims of cognitive biases.

According to developmental psychology researcher Olivier Houdé, this ability to inhibit our automatic thinking is the third thinking system in our cognitive system, the other two, uncovered by Daniel Kahneman, being “system 1” (S1), which is fast, intuitive and emotional, and “system 2” (S2), which is slower, reflective and logical. For Houdé, the “inhibition” or “resistance” system is nothing less than the key to intelligence. The brain’s ability to adapt its reasoning to context, to adjust, to change by inhibiting an automatism in order to activate a more appropriate strategy is known as “mental flexibility.” Training your cognitive inhibition system and mental flexibility is essential, even in adulthood. Practicing logic is not enough in this case. To “learn to think against oneself,” we need to train ourselves in very concrete situations to doubt, analyze, sort and order the information we receive.

Empathy supported by inhibition

Empathy is a conscious phenomenon that can be summed up as the ability to feel someone else’s affective states, to “put oneself in their shoes,” which implies initially being attuned to one’s own emotions or “self-awareness.” Indispensable for deciphering the feelings of others, this quality of being open and respectful towards others is one of the keys not only to effective communication but also – and this is less well known – to learning. Researchers at the CNRS, Child Development and Education Psychology laboratory have discovered that this – admittedly arduous – faculty, which requires us to decentralize ourselves in a given situation, is supported by our capacity for cognitive inhibition. This shows just how fundamental inhibition is to our ability to function properly as human beings and just how much all our school years are, in fact, aimed at developing this faculty.

Developing metacognition from childhood

Metacognition can be summed up as the ability to reflect on one’s own cognitive processes, enabling us to identify our mistakes and successes, understand their origins and adjust our aim. Since metacognition and metacognitive strategies are the foundation of all our learning, researchers at the CNRS Child Development and Education Psychology Laboratory have taken the gamble of trying to teach these concepts very explicitly to kindergarten children. According to these researchers, if educational inequalities can be explained in part by inequalities in this knowledge of metacognitive strategies, and this as early as kindergarten, there is a real challenge in teaching them in an extremely explicit way. As Grégoire Borst, professor of developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience in education, points out: “It’s by knowing about your attentional system, your memory, your capacity for inhibition and attentional flexibility that you can effectively acquire what we call the fundamentals of learning, even before you get into the fundamental learning skills of reading and mathematics.”

Sources :
  • Houdé, Oliver, L’école du cerveau : De Montessori, Freinet et Piaget aux sciences cognitives, Paris, Éditions Mardaga, 2019.
  • Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen; Singh, Vanessa, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2016.
  • Apprendre à apprendre with Grégoire Borst” series, , France culture, February 23, 2024.
Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Communication Strategist and Senior Editor @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.