What are cognitive abilities and skills, and can we 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). Peo­ple with trau­mat­ic brain injuries can expe­ri­ence low­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty linked to com­pro­mised neu­ronal regions and net­works (which is why neu­rore­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is so important).

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 exec­u­tive func­tions and those cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that are not used reg­u­lar­ly. For­tu­nate­ly, grow­ing evi­dence shows that decline can be delayed, and low­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty can be increased, with appro­pri­ate lifestyle options and prac­tices. Here are some resources to guide you as you look for ways to boost your cog­ni­tive functions:


  1. Kevin McGrew on December 20, 2006 at 12:16

    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 (www.intelligencetesting.blogspot.com).

    Kevin (the web/blogmaster for these two URLs)

    • Med stu on March 24, 2024 at 8:04

      thank u for the info, real­ly helps a lot

  2. Alvaro on December 20, 2006 at 12:21

    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 on February 11, 2009 at 12:57

    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. Kaveesha Nirmani Godawaththa Liyanage on March 3, 2024 at 12:23

    Thank you for the information.

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