Cognitive skills are an important component of human intelligence. A familiarity with cognitive skills can help you train your mind and better understand the varied ways in which it works.
Defining Cognitive Skills
Cognitive skills fall under the broader definition of cognition. Cognition is a term that encompasses nearly all of our mental processes. To study cognition is to study how humans process information. This includes how our memories work, how we interpret and understand language, how we solve problems, and how we make decisions, among other aspects. Human interest in the concept of cognition is thought to have begun in ancient Greek times, when philosophers like Aristotle began to question how the human mind worked. Though cognition is studied by experts in a variety of different scientific fields, the most common examination of cognition happens through the lens of psychology. In terms of psychology, cognition refers to one’s thoughts and brain functions.
Cognitive skills, sometimes referred to as cognitive functions, are the tools we use to mentally interpret to the world around us. The most common examples of cognitive skills are related to our ability to learn new information, such as when we interpret speech or writing. It is often discussed that growing old can be accompanied by a decrease in one’s cognitive skills and abilities. When an elderly person experiences memory loss or has trouble processing new information, his or her cognitive skills have weakened.
A scientist named Jean Piaget studied the concept of cognitive skills extensively in the early twentieth century, focusing particularly on the cognitive development of children. His findings on the subject contributed to his well-known theory of cognitive development, in which he claimed that children develop their cognitive skills throughout four distinct stages as they grow up. In the sensorimotor stage, from birth to two years of age, children possess motor skills, but any other kind of knowledge is very limited. In the pre-operational stage, from ages two to seven, they develop imagination and memory skills, and began to understand language, symbols, relationships and problem solving. In the concrete operational stage, from seven to twelve years of age, a more logical kind of intelligence emerges, and children are able to understand reversal of roles, and can manipulate symbols and operational thinking. And finally, in the formal operational stage, from twelve years onward, people develop the ability to think in an abstract way, solve complex problems, test hypotheses, and focus on logical reasoning.
Varieties of Cognitive Skills
Cognitive skills are classified differently depending on the discipline in which they’re being studied. However, there are some general categories in which cognitive skills can be examined, and tested in individuals.
One cognitive skills category focuses on the concept of attention. Particular attention skills include sustained attention, selective attention, and divided attention. Sustained attention is the ability to focus on something, and the length of time for which that focus can be sustained. Selective attention refers to the ability to remain focused on a task despite the presence of a variety of distractions, in the form of sensory input. And divided attention is the ability to successfully focus on two things at the same time, often referred to as multi-tasking.
Another type of cognitive skill has to do with processing information, in the form of both auditory and visual processing. Auditory processing includes the ability to analyze sounds, as well as to separate and combine them, and potentially recreate sounds. Auditory processing is a huge part of the methods by which children learn to read, by sounding out the noises that each letter or set of letters represents. Visual processing refers to the ability to perceive and analyze visual images, as well as to bring images to one’s mind when asked to imagine a specific idea or word. In other words, auditory and visual processing depends on an individual’s ability to understand sound and image input, and to create sound and image output of his or her own.
A rather broad category of cognitive skills revolves around the concept of memory, which can be described in two categories:
- long-term memory
- short-term memory.
Short-term memory is sometimes referred to as working memory as well. Memory is the cognitive skill that enables us to store information rather than just interpreting it, and to later recall that information to our minds. Short-term memory, or working memory, is the ability to interpret information and remain aware of that information while your brain performs other functions. A common example of using short-term memory is anytime you follow a set of directions to complete a task. You are maintaining the information presented to you in the early steps while you are fulfilling the later steps.
Long-term memory is the ability to recall information that was not recently stored. As you read these words, you are using your long-term memory, since it has been a number of years since you learned the components necessary to being able to read. A weak long-term memory can be problematic for people, and long-term memory tends to weaken as people grow older.
Logic and Reasoning
A final category into which cognitive skills are sorted is logic or reasoning. Logic and reasoning refer to one’s ability to use reasoning and knowledge to solve problems, as well as coming up with concepts, drawing conclusions, and analyzing relationships when presented with specific conditions. Strong logic and reasoning skills are necessary for much of one’s academic experience, particularly when solving mathematical problems, or anything that involves abstract thinking in order to arrive at a solution.
One overarching cognitive skill, which affects the other skill categories, is known as processing speed. Processing speed refers to one’s ability to perform a cognitive task, or a combination of cognitive tasks, quickly. Essentially, processing speed is the speed at which your brain works when presented with a task, despite the presence of outside distractions. Those with a high processing speed accomplish tasks sooner, and those who have a processing speed weakness often finish things late, or take a long time to get things done, even when it comes to simple tasks.
Each person possesses a different and unique set of cognitive skills, and it is rather rare to be strong in all cognitive areas. Most people have particular cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and these combinations impact the way they learn and interpret the world. Your specific set of cognitive skills has impacted your education, your career, and the way you solve problems in your every day life.
Maintaining and Improving Cognitive Skills
It is important to maintain your cognitive skill set, to offset the weakening of these skills that accompanies growing older. Cognitive function is maintained and benefitted by things like reading and exercise, but there are also more specific activities you can partake in to strengthen individual aspects of your cognitive functions. There are several different websites and other resources that offer cognitive skills tests. The results of these tests will let you know where your cognitive strengths are, and in which cognitive areas you are weakest, enabling you to strengthen the appropriate skills. Here are a few different ways you can strengthen some of your cognitive skills.
Memory skills can be strengthened by testing your memory, forcing yourself to remember particular patterns or the placement of many objects. This skill can be developed through a number of different online games, and sometimes even through playing board games. Associating two separate images or words, and remembering that association, is another memory skill that can be improved with practice. This is a skill developed by many students in order to memorize definitions or translations, often through the use of flashcards. A third way to build memory skills is to try to keep track of two different pieces of information at the same time, such as the movement of two different objects in a sequence.
Attention skills can be the most problematic of cognitive weaknesses, but they can also be improved with relative ease in your day-to-day life. The best way to improve your attention span is to try to focus on the main crux of any situation, despite the surrounding stimuli. Whenever you’re in a crowded or over-stimulating environment, focus on a particular aspect of the environment, and try to ignore any unimportant distractions. Attention skills are also improved by searching for repetitive patterns, and by attempting to multi-task whenever possible.
Logic and reasoning skills can be improved on a daily basis as well, particularly by practicing calculations mentally rather than with the use of a calculator or a pen and paper. Trying to figure out the fastest way from one location to another, completing a Sudoku puzzle, making a numerical estimate based on information given to you, and trying to solve even small problems in a step-by-step manner will all improve your cognitive ability to use logical reasoning.
The cognitive skills websites mentioned earlier, including the recently popular Luminosity, offer games and practice tasks to improve your cognitive functioning and strengthen the skills with which you struggle. Keeping your cognitive skills in mind and trying to constantly improve them will pay off in the long run. It’s important to note that no matter how strong your cognitive strengths or how weak your cognitive weaknesses, an understanding of how they work will benefit your overall cognitive functioning.