What is Cognitive Ability? Definition and Examples
Updated March 11, 2023
Every day, we're constantly using our brains to perform simple and complex tasks. We do so unconsciously, meaning we don't even have to think about tasks like processing information or analyzing problems, we just do it. This is all thanks to our cognitive abilities. Understanding what cognitive abilities are and which ones you excel in is important for succeeding in your personal and professional life.
In this article, we look further at what cognitive abilities are, the types of cognitive abilities you can have, why they're important, and how to improve them.
Related: A Guide to Soft Skills
What is cognitive ability?
Cognitive abilities are skills your brain uses to complete essential day-to-day tasks like thinking, learning, reading, remembering, speaking, listening and paying attention. Cognitive abilities occur naturally in the brain, but you can further develop and strengthen them by challenging yourself.
What types of cognitive abilities are there?
If you're trying to identify which of your cognitive abilities are strongest and which need improvement, it's important to know the different types. There are four categories of cognitive abilities: attention, memory, logic and reasoning, and processing. Although all cognitive abilities fall into one of these four categories, they sometimes intertwine, too. If one category is underdeveloped, it can slow development in the other categories as well.
To identify your strengths and weaknesses, let's take a deeper look at the four types of cognitive abilities:
Attention is the ability to focus on a task for a sustained period, even with distractions around you or while performing multiple tasks at the same time. Developing this skill is important as many jobs require you to focus, often on multiple tasks, in a busy environment.
Your attention also directly relates to your memory and ability to process information. If you can't focus on someone speaking to you, you won't be able to process or retain the information.
If you notice that you have difficulty multitasking, get distracted easily, or leave work unfinished, you may benefit from improving your attention. Other examples of difficulty focusing are making frequent mistakes and not finishing projects on time. Working to improve this cognitive ability makes it easier to focus and succeed in your work and in your personal life.
Related: Attention to Detail
Memory is your ability to recall recent information or information you stored in the past. We know this as short - and long-term memory. Using your memory is necessary for every job to remember policies, common processes, customers, requests, daily responsibilities and other important information.
If you find yourself forgetting instructions quickly, or having to read the same information multiple times, your short-term memory may need improvement. If you have trouble recalling names or information you've known for a long time, your long-term memory may be lacking. There are plenty of ways to improve both skills to perform better at work.
3. Logic and reasoning
Logic and reasoning are the abilities to solve problems, form ideas, and reason independently. These skills are necessary for every job as they allow you to come up with solutions to any problems you face. They also help you collaborate with a team and suggest solutions to benefit the entire group. If you have trouble deciding what to do next or struggle to understand instructions, improving your logic and reasoning skills can help.
4. Auditory and visual processing
Auditory and visual processing allows you to interpret any information you receive through sights or sounds. Auditory processing allows you to analyze sounds, such as someone speaking to you or listening to music. Visual processing allows you to think visually and process visual information, such as letters, numbers, colours and directions.
Processing speed is also something to consider with this cognitive ability, as it is what allows you to perform common tasks quickly and accurately. For example, if you struggle with visual processing, reading an email, following directions, or doing math problems can take a long time. If you struggle with auditory processing, listening to someone speak or read to you can be challenging. It can also impact your own speech and comprehension skills.
Why are cognitive skills important?
Your cognitive skills affect every part of your life, both professionally and personally. We use our cognitive abilities almost every moment of every day, even if we don't realize it. Improving one of your cognitive abilities can also improve the rest, making it easier to get a job or succeed in your current role. This is especially true in technical careers that require candidates to use their brains constantly.
While different careers may require different cognitive skills, it's important to develop all of them to make you a more impressive candidate or reliable team member. Here are some common qualities employers look for to assess your cognitive ability before hiring you or when doing routine performance reviews:
Related: How to Prepare for a Job Interview
Comprehending visual or auditory material is important in any job, especially when you're first being trained or interviewed. Employers may test your ability to understand their material by asking you to read a training manual or information sheet and answer questions about it. If you can complete the task with ease, it shows employers you are self-sufficient and don't need extensive training.
Many jobs require candidates to work on several tasks at once to get their work done quickly. To do this, you need to be able to focus, especially when surrounded by distractions. Employers may ask behavioural questions during an interview to assess this skill. For example, "What would you do if a customer was approaching you and the phone started ringing at the same time?"
If you already work for the company, employers can assess your ability to focus by monitoring whether you're meeting deadlines or prioritizing urgent tasks. So, improving your focus can lead to promotions or other career opportunities.
If you work in a creative industry, such as marketing, arts, or technology, you use your cognitive abilities to brainstorm new ideas and solutions. Employers can test this skill in an interview by giving you a hypothetical scenario and asking you to brainstorm a solution. For example, "How would you assess my vehicle if I brought it in and said the check engine light was on?"
How to improve your cognitive ability
You must constantly work towards improving your cognitive abilities to succeed both personally and professionally. This is especially true if you notice one area of your skills is stronger than the others. Here are some ways you can improve your cognitive ability:
1. Play brain games
Playing brain games is a great way to improve your memory, problem-solving skills, and ability to process information. There are plenty of great mental exercise books or games online that you can use for a few minutes every day. Make it daily activity with your entire family or some colleagues to help keep you motivated.
2. Engage in physical activity
Although cognitive abilities are psychological, physical activity is important to keep your entire body healthy. Regular physical activity also improves brain function. It gets your heart pumping, boosting your hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that is involved in memory and learning. So physical activity is good for your physical health and improves memory and thinking skills too.
3. Get good quality sleep
When we sleep, our brain repairs itself, which helps us process and store all the information we learned throughout the day. If we're sleep-deprived, we lose our focus and attention, and it becomes harder to process information. Getting enough good quality sleep every night, typically around seven to nine hours, is important for improving and using your cognitive abilities throughout the day.
4. Reduce stress
This may be easier said than done, but it's important to reduce stress in your life, to strengthen your cognitive skills. Stress, especially chronic stress, can negatively interfere with your cognition, memory and attention. You may struggle to remember things or focus enough attention on your work if you feel stressed. Eliminating or reducing stressors in your life is a great way to improve your cognitive abilities and your overall quality of life.
5. Challenge yourself
Stepping out of your comfort zone is one of the best ways to improve your reasoning and analytical skills. Trying new things and exposing yourself to new ideas by meeting different people allows you to discover fresh ways of thinking and problem-solving. You can then apply these new ideas to your professional and personal life.
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