MCAT Content / Cognition / Cognitive Development

Cognitive development

Topic: Cognition

Several theorists have proposed theories of cognitive development over the years.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development 

Jean Piaget approached development from a psychoanalytical perspective. Piaget focused on children’s cognitive growth. His theory of cognitive development holds that our cognitive abilities develop through specific stages.

Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational period.

The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages in cognitive development which extends from birth to the acquisition of language. In this stage, infants progressively construct knowledge and understanding of the world by coordinating experiences (such as vision and hearing) with physical interactions with objects.

The preoperational stage starts when the child begins to learn to speak at age two and lasts up until the age of seven. In this stage, children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot mentally manipulate information. The child can form stable concepts as well as magical beliefs. The child, however, is still not able to perform operations, which are tasks that the child can do mentally, rather than physically.

The concrete operational stage is the third stage occurring between the ages of 7 and 11 (preadolescence) years and is characterized by the appropriate use of logic.  The two important processes in the concrete operational stage are logic and the elimination of egocentrism.

The final stage is known as the formal operational stage (adolescence and into adulthood, roughly ages 11 to approximately 15-20): Intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. At this point, the person is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts.

Cognitive changes in late adulthood 

Aging impacts memory, cognitive functioning and abnormal memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Aging affects the sensory register creating small decrements in the sensitivity of the senses to the extent that a person has a more difficult time hearing or seeing, that information will not be stored in memory.

Aging impacts working memory as older people have more difficulty using memory strategies to recall details. As we age, the working memory loses some of its capacity. This makes it more challenging to concentrate on more than one thing at a time or to remember details of an event. Neurologically the pre-frontal cortex, which deteriorates more than other brain regions as we grow old.

Age does not impact the long-term memory, older adults retain semantic memory, or the ability to remember vocabulary, across all age ranges long term memory is always consistent.

Loss of cognition with age can be down to degenerative factors in health as well. Dementia is the umbrella category used to describe the general long-term and often gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember that affects a person’s daily functioning. Dementia generally refers to severely impaired judgment, memory or problem-solving ability. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

Role of culture in cognitive development 

The society and culture in which one grows up influences cognitive development. While biological milestones such as puberty tend to be universal across cultures, social milestones, such as the age at which children begin formal schooling or individuate from their parents, can differ greatly from one culture to the next.

Effective parenting styles vary as a function of culture. While the authoritative parenting style is the style that is most encouraged in modern American society, other cultures value more authoritarian styles. This can impact a child’s cognitive development and also access to educational institutions.

Race and racial stereotypes can have detrimental effects on a child’s cognitive development. Children are taught the stereotypes that go along with their race and the races of others, and these stereotypes can have a strong influence on their development. Race is also closely linked to class, and children of color are still statistically much more likely to lack access to essential resources and to experience economic hardship.

Influence of heredity and environment on cognitive development

Hereditary and environmental factors can impact cognitive development over time. This revolves around nature (hereditary) and nurture (environment) argument how the relationship between our genetics and surroundings impacts on our cognitive development. This complicated interaction can impact cognition where the environment we are raised in interacts with certain genetic predispositions impacting on cognitive development. An example of this would be a person born with a learning difficulty (nature) would struggle to access a traditional educational curriculum but when placed into a school with provision for students with learning difficulties they would receive specialist education and care which would improve their cognitive development.

Practice Questions

Khan Academy


MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 17

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Section Bank P/S Section Passage 11 Question 85

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 5 Question 25

Sample Test P/S Section Question 57

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 6 Question 33

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 4 Question 17

Key Points

• Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in childhood focused on four key stages from birth to young adulthood

• Cognitive ability changes with age and in later adulthood, there is a marked decline in short term memory and also the impact of age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers

• Culture can play a big part in the cognitive development of a child based on social stereotypes, parenting styles, and racial background.

• Hereditary factors interact with environmental factors to influence the cognitive development of children

Key Terms

egocentrism: the inability to consider or understand a perspective other than one’s own. It is the phase where the thought and morality of the child are entirely self-focused

alzheimer’s disease: an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks

dementia: a neurocognitive disorder, characterized by progressive and gradual cognitive deficits due to severe cerebral atrophy

long-term memory: the storage of information over an extended period

working memory: a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing

milestone: an important event in a person’s life or career, in the history of a nation, in the life of some project, etc

cognitive development: how children think, explore and figure things out

authoritative: using power to govern the development of others

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