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What is ‘cognition’?

‘Cognition’ is another word for ‘thinking processes’. It describes all the ways the brain makes us respond to the world around us. This includes how the brain uses what we already know (memories and knowledge) to work out how to think and act (behave) in new and different situations.

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How ‘cognition’ works in the brain

The brain is made up of many different parts (areas and structures) that have different jobs or functions. These structures of the brain are linked or connected in lots of different ways. Cognition takes place when these connections are used to make different jobs (functions) work together so that we can think and act.

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How hydrocephalus can change ‘cognition’

Hydrocephalus causes swelling and pressure in the brain. This can change how well cognitive processes work by:

  • Damaging an area or structure in the brain. This might mean that the job that area does (the function it performs) will not work so well or may work in a different way from usual.
  • Damaging the links or connections between areas and structures. This might mean that cognitive processes find it more difficult to get different areas and functions of the brain involved when they are needed.

Here are some of the important functions that our brains perform:

Brain diagram

© Matthew Cole - Thanks to Headway for their kind permission to reproduce this image.

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Making thoughts and actions

Thoughts and actions are a bit like jigsaws: they are not complete until all the pieces are in place. Doing or thinking about something small or simple is like doing a small jigsaw. If only a few pieces are missing or out of place you might still be able to guess what the picture should be: you may still be able to do what is needed. When thoughts and actions are more complicated, they need lots more pieces put into place. Like a jigsaw, if lots of the pieces are missing or jumbled it can be very difficult to imagine what the picture should be. If imagining it is difficult, putting it together may be impossible: it may not be possible to start or complete the thought or action.

Jigsaw diagram

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How hydrocephalus can change thinking and acting

Hydrocephalus can cause very little damage or it may change lots of areas of the brain or connections in the brain. If there are lots of changes in the way the brain is organised then it is more likely that there will be problems with thinking and acting (behaviour). This is because it may be very difficult for the brain to find and use all the information it needs to understand or make things happen. (This is like saying that the pieces of the jigsaw are missing, hidden, jumbled or cannot be brought together. The brain may not know where to start.)

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What a ‘well organised’ brain can do

A well organised brain can use the right functions, at the right time and in the right pattern.

This allows us to:

  • Use our senses by paying attention to the right things.
  • Link new information to memories and knowledge we already have so that we understand what it means.
  • Act or respond by expressing ourselves through words or behaviour.
  • Add the new information to what we already know and, in this way, we learn.

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Thinking and acting in different situations

What we need to do changes depending on the situation. The more complicated the situation, the greater the need for control of the processes that make us think and act. (In other words, the more complicated the jigsaw, the more need there is to have a plan about where to put the pieces and to work out when and how they should be connected. Sometimes we find this information in the picture on the lid of the jigsaw box. Once we have the picture we have a plan and something to refer back to. This makes it easier to do the jigsaw.)

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The brain’s ‘command centre’

The lid of the jigsaw box is a bit like the ‘command centre’ in the front of the brain (frontal lobes). If the jigsaw lid is missing or damaged, it can be very difficult to put the puzzle together.

When a child with hydrocephalus is having difficulties it can be hard to work out why. It could be a problem with the brain’s ‘command centre’ or with the functions and processes it controls.

The pages on this website may not have all the answers but it may help you learn more about things you recognise.

For more information and help with everyday issues, find out more about living with hydrocephalus.

For more detailed information about the brain, visit Headway.

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