Part #3: the domains of the brain

Now we’re getting into the real science stuff.

This is where you can learn more about how our minds actually work.

Because science is the new sexy!

Building an understanding of the brain bit by bit

Cognitive science has given us a lot of insight into exactly how the mind works but it is still a relatively new field – it’s only been around for about 100 years.

100 years is hardly new, right?

Well, the study of physics has been around for thousands of years and physicists are still making discoveries!

Although, cognitive science is making up for lost time. Because the technology that we have now is far beyond that of even 50 years ago – never mind millennia ago when the human brain was still considered a spooky and unknowable territory.

We can now measure things like cognition with consistent accuracy. And we know that certain cognitive capacities or processes are linked to specific domains in the brain.

A “domain” is the scientific term used to describe multiple activities in the brain that are related to a specific type of information processing.

Currently, the best model of human cognition we have is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll Theory of Cognitive Abilities. It is “the most comprehensive and empirically supported psychometric theory of the structure of cognitive abilities to date.” (Cattell-Horn-Carroll Theory of Cognitive Abilities, p.1)

No cognitive assessment in the world measures the entirety of this model. But nearly all cognitive assessments, including our own, fit within this model and measure across the spectrums of various abilities.

Already confused? Don’t worry, we can break it down further.

Through decades of research, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have linked certain domains to how we think and learn.

Using specifically designed tasks to measure certain types of cognitive processing, it is possible to identify eight key domains related to thinking and learning.

The first four of which are focused around verbal processes to do with language and logic-based thinking.

#1 Literacy

Literacy doesn’t just refer to our reading and writing skills, it encompasses everything we perceive about language, including:

  • Language processing power and speed
  • Vocabulary
  • Spatial perception – listening and speaking
  • Discussing and explaining ideas clearly

Language informs our interactions with other people.

So having an unidentified need in literacy can make learning and employment much more challenging.

Even when we’re just relaxing reading a book or scrolling through Facebook posts, our brains are carrying out all of these different activities in the background within milliseconds but all we think about are the words on the page.

Just goes to show how amazing our brains really are!

#2 Numeracy

Numeracy isn’t just about doing sums and times tables, it involves everything we perceive about numerical information, including:

  • Recognising patterns
  • Ranking information
  • Timekeeping and time management
  • Finance and spending

Numeracy informs some of the fundamental skills of working life.

Having an unidentified need in numeracy can make important tasks like budgeting or time management more difficult and problematic.

#3 Executive function

Executive function covers a range of processes that allow us to perform some of our more complex cognitive tasks, including:

  • Problem solving
  • Reasoning and analysis
  • Multitasking
  • Focusing attention

These are clearly vital skills for any workplace and an identified need in executive function can cause real difficulties for learners.

Interesting fact: research has shown that people in prison often have lower executive function.

Cognitive science has the potential not just to improve education but overall life outcomes for people if given the correct support.

#4 Verbal reasoning

This domain is about taking the information you learn and using it to form conclusions or ideas. It involves:

  • Generalising ideas
  • Making predictions
  • Forming concepts
  • Explaining how things relate

Here’s a good example:

A child, as children tend to do, asks you a seemingly ridiculous question like, “why do you go to work every day?”

The easy answer here is “to make money.”

Sometimes this is the only answer you’ll have the energy to give – we get it!

But a more useful response might be, “to make money so we can buy nice things, go on holiday, afford to buy a house, buy food every week” – the list goes on.

This more detailed reasoning helps to develop children’s conceptual understanding of the world and their verbal reasoning.

But wait.

There are more cognitive domains to discuss in our next post, as we continue to explore how we think and learn.