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What are Cognitive Abilities and Skills, and How to Boost Them?

learn about cognitive abilityFirst of all, what is cog­ni­tion? Cog­ni­tion has to do with how a per­son under­stands and acts in the world. It is a set of abil­i­ties, skills or processes that are part of nearly every human action.

Cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from the sim­plest to the most com­plex. They have more to do with the mech­a­nisms of how we learn, remem­ber, problem-solve, and pay atten­tion rather than with any actual knowl­edge. For instance, answer­ing the tele­phone involves at least: per­cep­tion (hear­ing the ring tone), deci­sion tak­ing (answer­ing or not), motor skill (lift­ing the receiver), lan­guage skills (talk­ing and under­stand­ing lan­guage), social skills (inter­pret­ing tone of voice and inter­act­ing prop­erly with another human being).

Men­tal func­tions or cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are based on spe­cific neu­ronal net­works or brain struc­tures. For instance mem­ory skills rely mainly on parts of the tem­po­ral lobes and parts of the frontal lobes (behind the forehead).

In the table below, you can browse through the main brain func­tions involved in cog­ni­tion. You will also find brain teasers that will help you exer­cise the cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties described. Learn, and have fun!

COGNITIVE ABILITIES ARE BRAINS FUNCTIONS

Cog­ni­tive Ability/Brain Func­tion
Skills involved
Per­cep­tion

Recog­ni­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of sen­sory stim­uli (smell, touch, hear­ing, etc.)

Brain chal­lenges:

Atten­tion Abil­ity to sus­tain con­cen­tra­tion on a par­tic­u­lar object, action, or thought.
Abil­ity to man­age com­pet­ing demands in our environment.Brain challenges:

Mem­ory Short-term/ work­ing mem­ory (lim­ited stor­age).
Long-term mem­ory (unlim­ited storage).Brain challenges:

Motor Abil­ity to mobi­lize our mus­cles and bod­ies.
Abil­ity to manip­u­late objects.

Brain chal­lenges:

  • Tap your right hand on the table. At the same time, make a cir­cu­lar move­ment with  your left hand (as if you were clean­ing the table)
  • Switch hands
Lan­guage Skills allow­ing us to trans­late sounds into words and gen­er­ate ver­bal output.

Brain chal­lenges:

Visual and Spa­tial Processing Abil­ity to process incom­ing visual stimuli.Ability to under­stand spa­tial rela­tion­ship between objects.Ability to visu­al­ize images and scenarios.

Brain chal­lenges:

Exec­u­tive Functions Abil­i­ties that enable goal-oriented behav­ior, such as the abil­ity to plan, and exe­cute a goal. These include:
Flex­i­bil­ity: the capac­ity for quickly switch­ing to the appro­pri­ate men­tal mode.
The­ory of mind: insight into other people’s inner world, their plans, their likes and dis­likes.
Antic­i­pa­tion: pre­dic­tion based on pat­tern recog­ni­tion.
Problem-solving: defin­ing the prob­lem in the right way to then gen­er­ate solu­tions and pick the right one.
Deci­sion mak­ing: the abil­ity to make deci­sions based on problem-solving, on incom­plete infor­ma­tion and on emo­tions (ours and oth­ers’).
Work­ing Mem­ory: the capac­ity to hold and manip­u­late infor­ma­tion “on-line” in real time.
Emo­tional self-regulation: the abil­ity to iden­tify and man­age one’s own emo­tions for good per­for­mance.

Sequenc­ing: the abil­ity to break down com­plex actions into man­age­able units and pri­or­i­tize them in the right order.

Inhi­bi­tion: the abil­ity to with­stand dis­trac­tion, and inter­nal urges.

Brain chal­lenges:

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COGNITIVE ABILITIES CAN IMPROVE IF EXERCISED

With age, some cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties decline, espe­cially the exec­u­tive func­tions. In addi­tion, cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that are not used reg­u­larly tend to dimin­ish over time. This may hap­pen at any age but is mostly observed in older age. For­tu­nately, these skills can also be improved at any age with reg­u­lar practice.

Use­ful resources:

- The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age (284 pages; April 2013)

- Short posts on what can boost cog­ni­tive abilities:

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