Cognitive Development: An Overview
Cognitive development is a process by which human beings begin to acquire, process, retain, and use knowledge.
Cognition includes vital skills like thinking, remembering, processing, decision making, and problem-solving.
Cognitive development starts while in the womb and continues well into adulthood.
Jean Piaget is one of the earliest influencers who researched cognitive development.
According to him, there are four stages of cognitive development.
- Sensorimotor stage - birth to 2 years of age
- Preoperational stage - 2 to 7 years of age
- Concrete operational stage - 7 to 11 years of age
- Formal operational stage - 12 to adulthood
Cognitive skills help individuals understand the relationship between ideas, understand cause and effect, process information analytically, and make the right decisions at the right time.
Learn more about how genes affect your personality and behavioral traits
Cognition: Nature vs. Nurture
How is cognitive development built? Is it genetically inherited or learned with practice?
Recent studies show that 50 to 70% of variations in cognition could be due to genetic changes.
This means that as soon as a person is born, a major part of their cognitive abilities could be pre-decided.
This completely changes the game for social programs and educational processes to increase children's Intelligence Quotient.
So does social factors have no role to play in cognitive development? Yes, say researchers.
While genes influence children's cognitive abilities, their socio-economic background, environmental factors, and access to opportunities majorly determine whether they reach their cognitive potential.
For example, consider two children with similar genetic makeup.
Child A is economically superior, while child B comes from a low socio-economic background.
Child A may still show higher cognitive development because a better socio-economic background opens more avenues and gives them better opportunities to use resources, learn and train.
A 2013 study on genetic influences on cognition states that the influence of genes on cognitive ability is increased when the learning experiences are better.
This means that while nature plays a bigger role in determining a person's cognitive development, one cannot ignore the role of the environment and experiences.
Also, other external factors like nutrition and stress levels may affect the ability of a person to achieve their cognitive potential—more about this in the coming sections.
How Does Genetics Affect Cognitive Development?
Cognitive skills like thinking, reasoning, processing and decision-making use different brain functions controlled by multiple genes in the body.
A 2018 study reported that about 709 previously identified genes, along with 148 newly identified genes, together may be associated with cognitive development.
There are also seven sets of genes identified that regulate the below functions.
- Neurogenesis (production of new neurons in the brain)
- Controlling the nervous system development
- Neuron projection
- Neuron differentiation
- Regulation of the nervous system
- Regulation of cell development
- Go dendrite (structures that receive communication from other cells)
Changes in these gene sets may affect different brain functionalities, including cognitive function.
Tips to Improve Cognitive Health
Due to several reasons, many people don’t reach their genetic potential for cognitive development. Here are tips to improve cognitive health.
- According to experts, a low glycemic index diet may help improve cognitive capacities, including thinking, remembering, and attentiveness. Simple sugars, on the other hand, may cause declined cognitive development.
- A diet that contains a 5:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids may promote better cognitive capacity.
- Amino acids are needed for the proper functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain.
- Oxidative stress may lead to cognitive deterioration. Foods rich in antioxidants help prevent this.
Control Stress Levels
A person’s mental health affects brain health, and studies say this starts even before the person is born. For instance, high levels of stress in mothers during gestation may affect the brain development of the fetus, and this may cause changes in cognitive development.
Work on controlling stress levels with mindfulness practices.
Practice Cognitive Stimulating Activities
While there is no solid evidence that cognitive-stimulating activities help improve cognitive function, experts suggest that these activities may help slow down the cognitive decline in adults.
Brain teasers and brain games can be used to delay conditions like dementia and improve brain health.
Be Socially Connected
A very important study that connected social behavior and cognitive impairment was the Experience Corps trial.
In this trial, 702 individuals aged 60 or older were given an opportunity to get involved in volunteering activities.
The study showed that people who experienced social connectedness because of volunteering had a significant increase in hippocampal volume.
Larger hippocampal volume points to better cognitive development.
Social enrichment also plays a role in improving cognitive development in infants.
Studies show that a stimulating social environment, increased parental involvement, and engaging play activities can benefit cognitive development in infants as less as six months of age.
- Cognitive development is how humans acquire, retain, and process knowledge. Cognitive development helps people process information correctly and make the right decisions.
- According to recent studies, 50-70% of cognitive development could be influenced by genetic makeup. Other external factors may help the person reach their genetic potential of cognition.
- There could be up to 850 genes that are associated with cognitive development. Changes in any of these genes could affect brain functionalities and cognitive abilities.
- The right nutrition may help improve cognitive capacities in humans. A diet rich in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, amino acids, and vitamins could benefit brain health.
- Stress could cause cognitive decline in adults. Practicing cognitive-stimulating activities can help delay conditions like dementia.
- Social connectedness and a stimulating environment are associated with improved cognitive capabilities in children and adults.