Cognitive Development

The cognitive science behind developmental psychology.

Object permanence
Infantile amnesia
Prefrontal cortex

Introduction to Cognitive Development

Cognitive development encompasses the growth of mental processes that enable us to think, learn, remember, and solve problems. This vital aspect of human development shapes our ability to navigate the world and adapt to new challenges. Studying cognitive development provides insights into how we acquire knowledge and skills throughout life.

A striking example in infancy is the emergence of object permanence – understanding that objects continue to exist even when out of sight. Around 8-12 months old, infants begin grasping this concept, paving the way for more complex reasoning abilities later on. This milestone marks a crucial step in maturation as it lays the foundation for future problem-solving skills.


Intriguingly, research has shown that children’s cognitive development can be influenced by factors such as nutrition, social interactions, and cultural practices. By examining these influences across diverse populations, developmental psychologists gain valuable perspectives on how various environments shape cognition over time.

Cognitive Development in Infancy and Early Childhood

In infancy and early childhood, the brain undergoes rapid development, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This region is responsible for executive functions such as planning, decision-making, and impulse control. Remarkably, by age five, a child’s brain has reached 90% of its adult size.


Major cognitive milestones during this period include object permanence (around 8-12 months), symbolic thinking (18-24 months), and conservation tasks mastery (4-7 years). However, red flags may arise if children struggle with basic problem-solving or language acquisition. For instance, not responding to their name by 12 months or lacking simple gestures like waving could signal developmental issues.

To support cognitive growth in these formative years, consistent nurturing interactions are crucial. Engaging activities like reading aloud or playing peek-a-boo can foster curiosity and learning. Additionally, providing a stimulating environment with diverse experiences helps build neural connections that underpin future intellectual abilities.

Cognitive Development in Middle Childhood and Adolescence

In middle childhood and adolescence, the prefrontal cortex continues its rapid development, refining executive functions. This period witnesses a surge in synaptic pruning (number of connections between neurons is reduced through the elimination of unused or unnecessary synapses), enhancing neural efficiency and cognitive abilities. For instance, feedback loops between midbrain and forebrain regions strengthen, bolstering self-regulation and decision-making skills.

Language control also flourishes during these years due to neuromaturation (biological process of maturation and development of the nervous system, including the brain and the peripheral nervous system) and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to the ability of neurons to alter their structure and function in response to experience). Adolescents become adept at switching between languages or dialects seamlessly – a phenomenon known as code-switching. Moreover, this stage is ripe for fostering talents and interests as children explore diverse activities like music lessons or sports teams.

These formative years are crucial for shaping lifelong passions and aptitudes. Encouraging exploration of various pursuits can ignite sparks that fuel future achievements – be it mastering chess strategies or perfecting ballet pirouettes. Ultimately, nurturing cognitive growth in middle childhood and adolescence lays the groundwork for thriving adulthood endeavors.


Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Cognitive aging refers to the natural decline in cognitive abilities as we age, including processes like memory, attention, and problem-solving. A backward transition occurs in adulthood. Higher-order skills developed earlier in life may regress or become less efficient. For example, an accomplished pianist might struggle with complex compositions they once mastered effortlessly.

Adult skill levels form a hierarchy ranging from basic to advanced competencies. As people age, updating skills across multiple domains becomes crucial for adapting to change and maintaining cognitive health. Take language learning: older adults can still acquire new languages by leveraging their existing linguistic knowledge and compensating for any declines through practice.


Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory proposes that adults go through a series of stages in their development, where they gradually acquire more complex ways of thinking and understanding the world. Each stage involves increasingly sophisticated ways of understanding oneself and the world around us – akin to shedding old mental frameworks for more nuanced perspectives. In essence, embracing lifelong learning fosters cognitive resilience amidst inevitable aging-related changes.

Memory Development

Memory, the mental capacity to encode, store, and retrieve information, lies at the heart of cognition. It enables us to learn from experiences and adapt our behavior accordingly. The sensory register briefly holds raw perceptual data – like noticing a vibrant butterfly fluttering past. Short-term memory retains limited information for brief periods – such as recalling a phone number just long enough to dial it. Long-term memory stores vast amounts of knowledge indefinitely – like remembering your first day at school.


The brain structure that is primarily involved in memory development and storage is the hippocampus.It is known to play a critical role in the formation and consolidation of new memories, especially episodic memories, which are memories of personal experiences and events. The hippocampus also plays a role in spatial navigation and memory, and it is involved in the retrieval of memories from long-term storage. Additionally, other brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, also play important roles in memory formation and storage.

Infantile amnesia refers to our inability to recall memories from early childhood; this phenomenon may stem from immature brain structures or underdeveloped cognitive schemas. Declarative memory encompasses conscious recollections: episodic (specific events), explicit (facts), and semantic (general knowledge). Non-declarative memory involves unconscious learning processes – like riding a bike without consciously recalling each step involved in balancing and pedaling.

Intelligence and Cognitive Abilities

Intelligence and cognition, while related, are distinct concepts. Cognition refers to mental processes like perception, memory, and problem-solving; intelligence is the ability to apply these cognitive skills effectively in diverse situations. Piaget’s theory of intelligence proposes that we construct knowledge through assimilation (integrating new information into existing schemas) and accommodation (modifying schemas based on new experiences). A schema is a mental structure that we use to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour.


Piaget identified four stages of intellectual development: sensorimotor (0-2 years), where infants learn object permanence; preoperational (2-7 years), marked by egocentrism and symbolic thinking; concrete operational (7-11 years), featuring logical reasoning about tangible objects; formal operational (12+ years), characterized by abstract thought and hypothetical reasoning. Intelligence is a multidimensional construct encompassing various abilities such as linguistic prowess or spatial aptitude – not just a single “IQ” score.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes that govern goal-directed behavior, such as planning, organizing, and inhibiting impulses. For instance, a child learning to wait their turn in a game demonstrates impulse control – an essential executive function skill. These abilities emerge during early childhood and continue developing into adolescence.

The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for executive functioning. This area matures throughout childhood and adolescence, enabling increasingly sophisticated self-regulation skills. Executive functions are crucial for academic success, social competence, and emotional well-being.

Factors affecting executive function include genetics, environment (e.g., exposure to stress or toxins), nutrition, sleep quality, physical activity levels, and mental health status. In both children and adults alike nurturing these factors can enhance cognitive flexibility and resilience – key components of adaptive problem-solving across life’s challenges.


Environmental and Cultural Influences on Cognitive Development

Environmental factors play a significant role in shaping cognitive development. For instance, children raised in noisy environments may struggle with recognizing and learning from speech. In one study, researchers found that kids exposed to high levels of airport noise had poorer reading comprehension and memory skills than their peers living in quieter areas.


Overcrowding can also hinder cognitive growth by increasing stress levels and reducing opportunities for focused learning. A classic experiment demonstrated that rats housed in cramped conditions exhibited impaired problem-solving abilities compared to those with ample space. Similarly, humans residing in overcrowded homes or neighborhoods often face challenges concentrating on tasks and retaining information.

Housing quality is another crucial factor influencing cognition. Children growing up in substandard housing are more likely to experience developmental delays and lower academic achievement. Conversely, improved living conditions can boost cognitive performance – as seen when families relocated from dilapidated public housing projects into better-quality homes experienced increased test scores among their children.

Lastly, cultural practices shape the ways we think and learn throughout our lives. For example, some societies emphasize rote memorization while others prioritize experiential learning or critical thinking skills – all of which contribute uniquely to an individual’s intellectual development within their specific cultural context.

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Introduction to Developmental Psychology;

A science of human psychological change

Theories and Models of Development;

The many theories around nature, nurture, and why we develop the way we do.

Physical and Motor Development;

The complex relationship between body and brain in development.

Language Development;

The multilateral relationship between language development and cognitive development.

Social and Emotional Development;

How our social circle influences our cognitive development, and the relationahip between cognitive development and our emotional development.

Moral Development;

How we learn to understand right and wrong (and how we sometimes fail to)

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