What Are Cognitive Skills? A Guide

The human brain is the center of cognition. Everything that encompasses life—words, visions, memories, understanding the environment—exist because of cognition. Cognitive skills are the vehicle for cognition. They consist of certain skills the brain uses to process stimuli. Read further to learn about specific cognitive skills, when they are used, how these skills evolve as we age, and tips to improve cognitive skills.

cognitive skills
Cognitive Skills

What Are Cognitive Skills?

The term cognition refers to the various processes of thinking. Completed by the brain, cognition is the act of acquiring knowledge and understanding from the world around us. Cognitive skills are the basic skills the brain relies on to carry out functions of cognition and to make sense of our experiences—of knowing. This includes attention, memory, processing speed, logic, reasoning, and visual and auditory processing.

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Neurons, which are specialized cells in the brain, make cognitive skills possible. As new neurons are produced by stem cells in the brain, they form connections with other neurons. Networks of neurons are activated in different areas of the brain depending on the cognitive skill applied. Unlike other automatic bodily mechanisms, like eating and breathing, we cannot accomplish cognitive skills automatically. They are all learned and must be developed and practiced to refine thinking.

What Are Cognitive Skills?  Use

Cognitive skills are used to read, learn, think, remember, reason, and to focus attention. We use cognitive skills so frequently that most fail to realize the cognitive processes occurring. As expected, we apply cognitive skills in obvious circumstances surrounding academic tasks. This includes reading, writing, and learning at school. The benefits of cognitive skills also extend to work and day-to-day life situations: leading a meeting for your boss, completing a sales transaction at the grocery store, or cleaning up your house.

However, sometimes multiple cognitive skills are executed at once. For example, replying to an email involves numerous cognitive skills. Perception is the first cognitive skill used while seeing and hearing the email notification. Next, motor movement allows you to type a response. Lastly, language and organization form the email’s content, and attention ensures you do not become sidetracked on outside tasks before the email is sent to the correct recipient. 

What Are Cognitive Skills? Types

No single skill is responsible for cognition. Learning takes place because of multiple cognitive skills—attention, memory, processing speed, logic, reasoning, and visual and auditory processing. Every person has cognitive skills, but some are stronger and more developed. You may be proficient in memory, while your friend struggles to focus his attention on a desired stimulus. It is interesting to witness the variances in cognitive skills.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Attention

Attention is the ability to concentrate on a stimulus. Whether an object, thought, or action, attention shifts our focus to necessary stimuli in the environment. Attention is the reason we can choose to fixate on a particular activity, such as taking a test, while ignoring noisy students in the adjacent seat. Competing stimuli go unprocessed as attention concentrates on what is perceived to be important. It is comparable to a camera lens in our brain that is zooming in on a single image, leaving the background a hazy blur.

The cognitive skill known as attention facilitates the use of other cognitive skills. The brain cannot process information from the environment without first capturing our attention. There are three types of attention that contributing to cognition.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Selective Attention

Imagine shopping at a busy grocery store. You see food items and shopping carts pushed by fellow customers. The sounds of employees stocking shelves, people talking, and ringing at checkout resonates throughout the store. You proceed to discuss your grocery list with a member of your family. Selective attention is the reason you are able to have that conversation without overstimulation from stimuli. Although noise surrounds you, it goes relatively unnoticed because your brain is choosing only to concentrate on the conversation at hand.

Selective attention is the ability to select one stimulus out of the many environmental factors present. The cognitive skill of selective attention is considered developed if you easily avoid both external (i.e. noise, visual stimuli) and internal (i.e. thought) distractions.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Divided Attention

Divided attention is the ability to attend to two stimuli simultaneously. Simply put, it is multi-tasking at its finest. Divided attention is why we can participate in multiple activities. This ranges from watching television while finishing your homework to cleaning the house and talking on the phone concurrently. Proficiency of one task decreases when attention is divided between multiple tasks.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Sustained Attention

Sustained attention is synonymous to attention span, vigilance, and concentration. It is the continuous ability to concentrate on a task for a prolonged period without becoming distracted by outside stimuli. Maintaining sustained attention is difficult for the general population. It is dependent upon on the task. For example, focusing on writing a final paper for class likely demands more attention than watching a movie.

However, certain conditions influence sustained attention. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by persistent deficits in attention and controlling impulsive behavior. Those with ADHD struggle to stay on task because it primarily effects sustained attention. Difficulty with attention is also present in specific learning disabilities, dementia, and traumatic brain injuries resulting in brain damage.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Memory

Memory is “the process involved in retaining, retrieving, and using information about stimuli, images, events, ideas, and skills after the original information is no longer present” (Goldstein, 2015). Facts, history, phone numbers, past events—memory is a cognitive skill that enables us to hold onto all kinds of information. The type of memory employed is determined by what kind of information the stimulus is and how long the information is to be remembered for.

What Are Cognitive Skills? Short-Term and Working Memory

Short-term memory is for the information in current awareness. It is the ability to hold onto information so that it aids in performing an action. Short-term memory is limited, storing information for 20 to 30 seconds before decaying. Historical psychological theories propose that short-term memory holds around seven items. Information in short-term memory dissipates unless effort is made to retain it and transferred to long-term memory.

A part of short-term memory, working memory aspect of the cognitive skill. Short-term memory alone entails storing information, but working memory is the manipulation of stored information for cognition. A common example of short-term memory is remembering a phone number, whereas working memory is remembering that same phone number while reading the remainder of a paragraph.   

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Long-term Memory

Long-term memory is the ability to recall information previously stored in the past. When information is transferred from short-term to long-term memory, the brain functions as a library. Facts, events, calculation, and procedures that occur more than a minute ago are at your disposal if they are retrieved. Long-term memory is considered a cognitive skill because you merge relevant information from new experiences with memory.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Perception

Perception is the state of awareness through the five senses. With perception, we identify stimuli by what we hear, see, touch, taste, or smell. Once the stimuli are perceived, it is then processed and interpreted for cognition.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Visual Processing

Visual processing is a cognitive skill used daily. The name seems as if it would imply the act of visually seeing. However, visual processing goes deeper than looking at an object. It is the organization of visual stimuli obtained from the environment. Visual processing allows us to comprehend spatial relationships and to think in visual images. Jigsaw puzzles are an ideal example of visual processing. Finishing a puzzle necessitates seeing the separate pieces, forming patterns, and determining spatial locations.

Attention closely relates to visual processing, as a poor attention span impacts visual processing capabilities. If you are distracted, you are not apt to focus attention on a stimulus long enough to interpret the environment.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Auditory Processing

Sound information comes from the environment and reaches the ears through perception. Auditory processing is a cognitive skill that involves analyzing, segmenting, and blending sounds. Hearing sounds the environment is one aspect of auditory processing. It also encompasses phonemic awareness—the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds. Lacking auditory processing produces deficits in reading, speech, and writing.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Processing Speed

Processing speed is the speed in which the brain takes in data from the senses, processes its meaning, and then responds. A real-life example of processing speed is in a classroom setting: the teacher gives multi-step instructions for an exam and the student with poor processing speed does not follow all of the steps. Processing speed is the pace or ability to perform repetitive tasks, meaning the cognitive skill is not evident until information is already learned. Delays in processing speed do not indicate ignorance. It is not that the person does not know. Their brain just needs extra time to process information.

What Are Cognitive Skills? –Logic and Reasoning

Logic and reasoning describe ways of thinking. Together, they create structure in cognition. Logic and reasoning are cognitive skills that influence how we think to solve problems and draw conclusions. This entails forming inferences when faced with an unfamiliar problem, recycling old solutions, and automatic application of knowledge.

The information stored in long-term memory is key for implementing logic and reasoning because it provides former experiences in which to organize relationships from learning. Problem solving emphasized in logic and reasoning is pertinent in daily tasks.

Cognitive Skills in Infancy

Infants are typically not seen reading books, writing down their ideas, or speaking their thoughts. Still, infancy is a prime stage of life to cultivate cognitive development. Cognitive skills develop with age. In infancy, the infant subtly portrays their cognitive skills in their actions.

From as young as 2 months, the infant practices attention and visual processing. They look around at the environment around them, beginning to recognize faces and objects. By 6 months, they combine motor functions with their visual processing to reach for objects that have captured their attention. From 12 to 18 months, the infant applies problem-solving and demonstrates a marked increase in processing speed. They let things go without help from adults and they respond to one-step verbal directions.

Towards the end of infancy, their thinking evolves with logic and reasoning. They can then follow two-step instruction given to them by caregivers. Even their toys are designed to reflect this transformation in cognitive skills. As their problem solving skills advance, they organize information to play with toys with more complex parts such as levers, buttons, and pieces. Cognitive skill development in infancy is the basis for the remainder of cognitive development throughout childhood and adulthood.

Cognitive Skills in Childhood

Childhood is the stage in life from ages 4 to 11 years. Drastic physical and cognitive developmental milestones occur throughout childhood. Cognitive skills progress with maturity and become applicable for academic purposes when children start school.

Auditory processing is the cognitive skill most refined in childhood. Children recognize sounds from their environment and learn to execute phonetic sounds. Auditory processing allows them to identify alphabet sounds for speech and language.

The tasks and milestones below expand the cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing, and logic and reasoning:

  • Learning the alphabet
  • Copying letters
  • Counting
  • Recognizing shapes
  • Cutting with scissors
  • Telling time
  • Following multi-step instructions
  • Telling a story
  • Singing songs
  • Games — board games, card games
  • Recognizing truth from lies

Cognitive Skills in Adolescence

Adolescence is the transition from childhood to adulthood. Ages 12 to 18 is the adolescent stage representing the beginnings of puberty—the physical and psychological changes adolescents undergo as they reach sexual maturity. Cognitive skills are paramount to the stage of adolescence.

According to Pediatrics in Review, there are 3 areas of cognitive development in adolescence:

Reasoning

Adolescents adopt a logical thought process as cognitive skills advance. Not only can they think about what is occurring in the present, but they also develop the capacity to consider the future. Additionally, the cognitive skill of logical and reasoning allows adolescents to think hypothetically—weighing a range of possibilities and consequences.

Abstract Thinking

Children are concrete thinkers. Adolescents, however, move from concrete to abstract thinking. Abstract thinking contributes to their cognitive abilities because they are able to imagine thoughts they do not have direct experience with. With abstract thinking, adolescents calculate numbers, contemplate spirituality, and grow in their psychosocial relationships.

Meta-Cognition

Meta cognition is the ability to think about thinking. Using meta-cognition, they think about their feelings and of others’ opinions of them.

Cognitive Skills in Adulthood

Exercise Improves Cognitive Skills
Exercise Improves Cognitive Skills

Cognition is steady throughout early adulthood. Cognitive skills actually peak around age 30. Adults are more efficient at applying cognitive skills to solve real-world problems. They are better at executive functions, including planning, time management, and connecting past experiences with current tasks.

However, cognitive skills decline toward the end of middle adulthood and late adulthood. Memory is not as sharp, and processing speed declines between ages 40 and 50. Dividing attention amongst multiple tasks requires increases effort, as does problem-solving as it pertains to academics.

How To Improve Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills are learned. Like your favorite hobby, they require practice and repetition to refine. Engage in one of these activities to ensure your cognitive skills reach the fullest potential:

  • Brain training—Brain stimulation rehabilitates cognitive skills not functioning up to par for your age. CogniFit offers online brain tests personalized to your individual needs.
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  • Games—Puzzles and board games keeps the brain active, encouraging new ideas and problem-solving.
  • Exercise—Physical activity improves memory, mood, and overall cognitive function. Whether a brisk walk or intense cardio, staying active promotes the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters that decrease brain inflammation.
  • Rest—A proper night’s sleep is essential for cognition. The brain needs rest to repair and regenerate neuronal connections.
  • Meditation—Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind and body on a particular object, thought, or activity. This is great to improve attention, as the goal of meditation is to relax without distraction.
  • Reduce stressStress is a natural facet of life, but not all stress is beneficial. Avoiding unnecessary stress reduces the chance of cognitive problems.
  • Diet—Cognitive function is fueled by food. Inadequate dietary intake does not give the brain the vitamins and minerals to expand cognitive skills. Eat a diet with green leafy vegetables and sufficient omega-3 fats, like walnuts, to foster an ideal physiological environment for cognition.

Do you have a different approach to boosting your cognitive skills?

References

Gómez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-78.

Jarvis, M. (2017). Meditation Improves Cognition, Studies Show. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/news/meditation-improves-cognition-studies-show

Sanders, R. A. (2013). Adolescent Psychosocial, Social, and Cognitive Development. Pediatrics In Review, 34(8), 354-359.