Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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 the set of abil­i­ties 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. 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 Ability/Brain Func­tion
Skills involved


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

Brain chal­lenges:


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


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

Motor skills

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


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:



With age, some cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties decline, espe­cially exec­u­tive func­tions. In addi­tion, cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that are not used reg­u­larly tend to dimin­ish over time. For­tu­nately, grow­ing evi­dence shows that decline can be delayed with appro­pri­ate lifestyle options and practices.

To learn more, you can read The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age (284 pages; April 2013).

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4 Responses

  1. Kevin McGrew says:

    An inter­est­ing list. How­ever, the defin­i­tive cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties tax­on­omy is now widely con­sid­ered to be the Horn-Cattell Gf-Gc or Cattell-Horn-Catell (CHC) the­ory of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. It is a hier­ar­chi­cal tax­on­omy of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that includes gen­eral intel­li­gence (g) at the top, 8–10 broad abil­i­ties at the next stra­tum, and 50+ spe­cial­ized nar­row cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. It is widely accepted as the most empir­i­cally solid psy­cho­me­t­ric for­mu­la­tion of a tax­on­omy of human cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. More infor­ma­tion can be found at:

    Updated infor­ma­tion can be found at IQs Cor­ner (

    Kevin (the web/blogmaster for these two URLs)

  2. Alvaro says:

    Thanks Kevin, we are try­ing to cre­ate a user-friendly list for non-experts, not rede­fine aca­d­e­mic cat­e­gories. Many neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists focus on other dimen­sions rather than the con­struct “g”. We will review the mate­ri­als you sug­gest, and happy to refine as needed. Thanks

  3. Don says:

    Is a diag­no­sis of legally blind a dimin­ish­ment of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties?
    If so how many cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are decreased in the absence of other problems?

  4. […] Areas of cog­ni­tion which can be impaired after brain injury include: Per­cep­tion, atten­tion, mem­ory, motor skills, lan­guage stills, visual &spa­tial pro­cess­ing, goal ori­ented behav­iors called exec­u­tive func­tion­ing enabling a per­son to plan (i.e. flex­i­bil­ity, insight, antic­i­pa­tion, prob­lem solv­ing,  work­ing mem­ory, emo­tional self– reg­u­la­tion, the abil­ity to sequence a task, action and inhi­bi­tion (of dis­trac­tions) See: […]

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