Cognitive Functions

The cognitive functions are mental processes through which we collect and store information, interpret this information, and make decisions or evaluations.

There are four main cognitive functions: Thinking (T), Feeling (F), Intuition (N), and Sensing (S).  Every individual uses all four functions, but when and how they use these functions is determined by both their psychological type and their environment.

The four functions can be divided into two categories, judging and perceiving functions.

Perceiving functions are the cognitive processes through which we gather and store information.  They are Intuition (N) and Sensing (S).

Judging functions are the cognitive processes through which we evaluate information and make decisions and, well, judgments.  They are Thinking (T) and Feeling (F).

Let's take a closer look at each of these functions.

Perceiving Functions

The perceiving functions - Sensing and Intuition - are the means through which we mentally collect and store information.

Sensing, as a function, is concerned with the accumulation and retrieval of concrete information about the world.  It processes information related to real, observable things.  This includes properties of matter, such as taste, color, sound, mass, momentum, etc.  It also includes information about the interactions between concrete objects or data; for example, Sensing allows us to interpret information about chemical reactions, identifying the source of a sound, remembering how your Grandma made your favorite cookies, and understanding why you do or don't enjoy the taste of them.

I'd like to take a moment here to encourage readers to keep in mind that no cognitive function operates in isolation.  Sensing, for example, is always communicating information to (and collecting information from) the other three functions.  This is a quite complex process that we will get into in more depth in future articles, but for now, I'd like you to think of these descriptions as referring to the general focus of each function, rather than exclusive domains that other functions have no influence on.

In contrast to Sensing, Intuition is concerned with the accumulation and retrieval of abstract information about the world.  It processes information related to meaning and conception.  This includes simple labels and ideas, such as 'mother', 'war', 'art', and 'education'.  It also includes connections between objects, ideas, events, or processes - for example, Intuition allows us to understand the metaphors that information can flow like a stream, or that a popular idea can reach a "tipping point".

One more note, gentle reader: there is a common misconception that our strong functions determine our destiny, which is a particularly hurtful claim when applied to Sensors (those for whom Sensing is a strong function).  I'd like to reiterate once again that all people use all four functions.  The claim, made by some misguided folks, that Sensors are incapable of abstract thought is - frankly - just as a stupid as a claim would be that Intuitives are incapable of walking upright on a sidewalk. Without Intuition, we wouldn't know what anything means.  And yet, without Sensing, we wouldn't know that anything exists in the first place.  That said, there are benefits (and drawbacks) associated with being a Sensor, just as there are benefits (and drawbacks) to being an Intuitive, both of which we will get into in much greater detail in future articles.

Now that we've concluded our brief overview of the perceiving functions, let's move on to the...

Judging Functions

The judging functions - Thinking and Feeling - are the means through which we evaluate information, draw conclusions, and make decisions.

Thinking (sometimes referred to as logic) is a function which evaluates and draws conclusions about impersonal systems and inanimate objects.  It allows us to determine that the cause of the car accident was the reduced friction of the road surface due to the rain.  Thinking tells us that all dogs are animals, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all animals are dogs.  Thinking helps us decide how to fix a broken toilet, how to denote the speed of light, how to maximize the efficiency of an engine, and the fact that holding a paintbrush at an angle allows the artist to cover a larger surface with fewer strokes.

In contrast to Thinking, Feeling (sometimes referred to as ethics) is concerned with interpersonal systems, humans, and society.  It allows us to make the decision to take Todd's keys away because he's too drunk to drive safely.  Feeling tells us that lying is wrong, but sometimes it's okay to lie in order to protect someone you love.  Feeling helps us decide the best approach for convincing a teenager to do their homework, what the intrinsic purpose of altruism is, how to arrange an office to keep the employees feeling comfortable and productive, and whether or not a painting is beautiful or an object is valuable to us.

And I'm sure you don't need the reminder, but once more, for the back of the class: all people use all four functions.  Thinkers are not all emotionless, sociopathic robots.  Nor are Feelers slobbering masses of tears and petty gossip.  Without Thinking, we wouldn't be able to accomplish anything.  Without Feeling, we wouldn't have any reason to.

So remember how I said that all four functions, by, necessity, work together?  Let's see an example of how that plays out in the real world.

Example

Jim-Bob recently inherited a small patch of land from his late uncle and has decided to build an eco-friendly house on the property.  He read about solar panels in a tech magazine he subscribes to, so he shopped around for a good deal.  He found a cheap set from SolarCorp., but his wife told him that they use slave labor to mine some of the minerals in their panels.  So, Jim-Bob ended up buying the second cheapest set, which is durable and is recommended by most leading industry experts.  Jim-Bob worked tirelessly to collect the necessary materials, cut the lumber, and frame and finish the house, and when it came time to install the solar panels, he hired a contractor to handle it as he knew he didn't have the requisite experience.

***

So what functions did Jim-Bob use in this story?  Clearly, he needed all of them.


Sensing allowed him to gather information about the property and materials needed for his house.  It allowed him to recognize the solar panel company logo, to purchase and transport the required materials, and to cut the lumber without cutting his fingers off.  In conjunction with the judging functions, it helped him make the right choices about size, scale, construction, and order of events.


Intuition allowed him to understand the concepts of inheritance - that he now owns the property and can build things on it.  Intuition helps Jim-Bob understand that money is not simply pieces of random paper, but that it has value and can be exchanged for goods and services.  In conjunction with the judging functions, it allowed him to conceptualize his own knowledge and capabilities in comparison to industry experts and the contractor.


Thinking allowed him to make sound decisions about the house.  For example, Thinking helped him decide how long to cut each piece of wood and which part of the house to build first.  It allowed him to judge and weigh factors like durability and cost.  It also helped him to understand the function and design of a solar panel and the process of installation, including recognizing the steps where he didn‚Äôt have enough information to make those judgments himself.


Finally, Feeling is why he decided to build the house in the first place.  He felt it would be a good/important investment for his family.  It helped him decide that supporting ethical companies (or maybe just keeping his wife happy) was a higher priority than cost alone - and also that slave labor is unethical.  Lastly, it helped him decide that hiring a contractor was preferable to installing the solar panels himself because of the peace of mind it would bring him and his family, despite the small dent in his pride.

Further Reading

Now that you understand the four main functions, you're well on your way to having a good grasp of the basics of Jungian typology!  Here's where you go from here.

First, you'll want to learn about Introversion vs. Extraversion in functions.  This is often referred to as the attitude of each function.

Then, you're ready to dive into all eight function attitudes!  Click below for more details about each one as they become available.

Se (Extraverted Sensing)
Si (Introverted Sensing)
Ne (Extraverted Intuition)
Ni (Introverted Intuition)
Te (Extraverted Thinking)
Ti (Introverted Thinking)
Fe (Extraverted Feeling)
Fi (Introverted Feeling)