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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 ABILITIES ARE BRAINS FUNCTIONS

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:

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COGNITIVE ABILITIES ARE NOT FIXED — WE CAN IMPROVE THEM VIA LIFESTYLE AND TARGETED PRACTICE

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:

Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness Computer Programs: Interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg

Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg is a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine, and author of over 50 peer-reviewed papers. His areas of exper­tise include exec­u­tive func­tions, mem­o­ry, atten­tion deficit dis­or­der, demen­tia, trau­mat­ic brain injury, and oth­ers. Dr. Gold­berg was a stu­dent and close asso­ciate of the great neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Alexan­der Luria. His book The Exec­u­tive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civ­i­lized Mind (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001) has received crit­i­cal acclaim and has been pub­lished in 12 lan­guages. His recent book The Wis­dom Para­dox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Old­er (Gotham Books, Pen­guin, 2005) offers an inno­v­a­tive under­stand­ing of cog­ni­tive aging and what can be done to fore­stall cog­ni­tive decline. It has been, or is in the process of being, pub­lished in 13 lan­guages.

We are for­tu­nate that Dr. Gold­berg is Sharp­Brains Co-Founder and Chief Sci­en­tif­ic Advi­sor. His book The Wis­dom Para­dox inspired me to embark in this path, and has been a key sound­ing board in the devel­op­ment of what we are doing.

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Key take-aways

- “Use It and Get More of It” reflects real­i­ty bet­ter than “Use It or Lose It”.

- Let’s demys­ti­fy cog­ni­tion and the brain. Every­one needs to have a basic under­stand­ing of the brain-and how to cul­ti­vate it.

- Well-direct­ed men­tal exer­cise is a must for cog­ni­tive enhance­ment and healthy aging.
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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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