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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 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. I hope you enjoy it…and have fun!


Cog­ni­tive Ability/Brain Func­tion
Skills involved


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

Brain teasers:


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


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 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)
  • Do the same, switch­ing hands


Skills allow­ing us to trans­late sounds into words and gen­er­ate ver­bal out­put.

Brain teas­er:

Visu­al and Spa­tial 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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5 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. […] el Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, la cog­ni­ción tiene que ver con la for­ma en que una per­sona entiende el mun­do y cómo actúa en […]

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