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

learn about cognitive abilityWhat is cog­ni­tion? Cog­ni­tion has to do with how a per­son under­stands the world and acts in it. It is the set of men­tal abil­i­ties or process­es that are part of near­ly every human action while we are awake.

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 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).

Cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties or skills are sup­port­ed by 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 — We hope you enjoy them!


Cog­ni­tive Ability/Brain Func­tion
Skills involved
PERCEPTION         Recog­ni­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of sen­so­ry stim­uli (smell, touch, hear­ing…)

Brain teasers:

ATTENTION Abil­i­ty to sus­tain con­cen­tra­tion on a par­tic­u­lar object, action, or thought, and abil­i­ty to man­age com­pet­ing demands in our envi­ron­ment.

Brain teasers:

MEMORY Short-ter­m/ work­ing mem­o­ry (lim­it­ed stor­age), and Long-term mem­o­ry (unlim­it­ed stor­age).

Brain teas­er:

MOTOR SKILLS Abil­i­ty to mobi­lize our mus­cles and bod­ies, and abil­i­ty to manip­u­late objects.

Brain teasers:

  • 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)
  • Do the same, switch­ing hands
LANGUAGE Skills allow­ing us to trans­late sounds into words and gen­er­ate ver­bal out­put.

Brain teas­er:

VISUAL AND SPACIAL PROCESSING Abil­i­ty to process incom­ing visu­al stim­uli, to under­stand spa­tial rela­tion­ship between objects, and to visu­al­ize images and sce­nar­ios.

Brain teas­er:

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 teasers:



With age, some cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties tend to decline, espe­cial­ly the so-called exec­u­tive func­tions, and those cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that are not used reg­u­lar­ly. For­tu­nate­ly, grow­ing evi­dence shows that decline can be delayed with appro­pri­ate lifestyle options and prac­tices. Here are some resources to guide you as you look for ways to boost your cog­ni­tive func­tions:

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22 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. […] depri­va­tion affects cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty . A study showed that peo­ple who were awake for nine­teen con­sec­u­tive hours were as cog­ni­tive­ly […]

  5. […] Posit Sci­ence tech­nol­o­gy in Brain­HQ not only improves key stan­dard mea­sures of cog­ni­tive func­tion (includ­ing speed and accu­ra­cy of pro­cess­ing, atten­tion, and mem­o­ry), they also improve key stan­dard […]

  6. […] a study com­mis­sioned by Lumos­i­ty, peo­ple who played Lumos­i­ty for 10 weeks improved their cog­ni­tive func­tion more than a place­bo group who played online cross­word […]

  7. […] health. Turmer­ic has the abil­i­ty to heal wounds, slow down aging, reduce inflam­ma­tion, pro­tect your cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty, improve your skin health, alle­vi­ate pain, improve diges­tion, and pre­vent […]

  8. […] best option to help the patient recov­er,  reduce symp­toms, max­imise their func­tion­al and cog­ni­tive capac­i­ties, improve their well-being and inde­pen­dence, and to encour­age them to set their indi­vid­ual neu­ro […]

  9. […] Mich­e­lon, P. (2006, Decem­ber 18). What are cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties and skills, and how to boost them? Retrieved from […]

  10. […] it has also been deter­mined that sharks are capa­ble of learn­ing cog­ni­tive skills from oth­er sharks much like black­birds learn from one anoth­er. There are sev­er­al species of shark […]

  11. […] of the brain on gamers, show­ing long-time game play­ers, espe­cial­ly action gen­res, have a high­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty than ordi­nary peo­ple or peo­ple just play games in a short […]

  12. […] indi­vid­ual with great cog­ni­tive skills is bet­ter-posi­tioned to suc­ceed in this busi­ness, as they come in handy in a vari­ety of work […]

  13. […] of the brain on gamers, show­ing long-time game play­ers, espe­cial­ly action gen­res, have a high­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty than ordi­nary peo­ple who just play games in a short […]

  14. Can Nootropics Make You Smarter? – Kate Headley says:

    […] have large sam­ple sizes of par­tic­i­pants and show that some sup­ple­ments can sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties over the short term. How­ev­er, the long term side effects of using nootrop­ics are still up for […]

  15. […] sup­ple­ments are drugs that can have a pos­i­tive effect on cog­ni­tive pow­er. They are some­times called brain pills or smart drugs, and they are used by all dif­fer­ent groups of […]

  16. […] a hap­py, healthy life begins by nur­tur­ing their cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment. Our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties are brain-based skills that help us com­plete sim­ple or com­plex tasks, includ­ing read­ing, writ­ing, remem­ber­ing, rea­son­ing […]

  17. […] injury can impair your cog­ni­tive skills in a sig­nif­i­cant way, espe­cial­ly over time. Some of the most com­mon prob­lems you’re like­ly to […]

  18. […] cheer up your grand­par­ent is when you play with them. Select games that can also stim­u­late their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. Your options include scrab­ble, puz­zles, or chess. This way, you will be hit­ting two birds with one […]

  19. […] par­ents believe that when chil­dren lis­ten to clas­si­cal music, it stirs their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. More so if he learns how to play an instru­ment. It devel­ops hand-eye coor­di­na­tion, recog­ni­tion of […]

  20. […] What are Cog­ni­tive Abil­i­ties and Skills, and How to Boost Them? […]

  21. […] also be very stress­ful. It’s not about not being capa­ble of some­thing. It is not even about your cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. Even the best writ­ers can get stuck and expe­ri­ence a writer’s block. But it is a sit­u­a­tion­al […]

  22. […] on Google about this issue. Besides some nec­es­sary skills, online games also help your child with cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. If you think it sounds strange, take a look at this arti­cle, and you will […]

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