What are cognitive skills and why are they important?

Here is how we learn, think, remember, and solve problems.
Maia Mulko
Human brain with nervesSource: Ars Electronica/Flickr

Cognitive skills are a set of mental abilities related to the way our brain deals with the information about the world around us — including past experiences, what we perceive with our senses, our thoughts, and reasoning.

Although the word “cognition” refers to the action or process of acquiring knowledge, cognitive functions can also be carried out by resorting to previously obtained knowledge. Examples of cognitive skills include short-term and long-term memory, language production and processing, problem-solving abilities, and making predictions based on pattern recognition.

problem solving skills
Source: Public Domain Pictures

Most of these cognitive skills ultimately rely on memory. But there are others that do not, such as attention, emotional regulation, and perception.

The study of human cognition is called cognitive science. It is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the study of the human mind and its processes. It draws on the fields of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, linguistics, and even artificial intelligence and computer science.   

Cognitive science tries to explain how we learn and comprehend things, how we evaluate situations and make decisions, how we plan things and solve problems, etc. For this, cognitive scientists use different kinds of experiments, brain scans, and computational models. 

How many cognitive skills are there?

There are several cognitive skills types and subtypes.

  • 1. Attention. Attention is a cognitive skill that can be split into the following subtypes:
    • Sustained attention. The ability to pay attention for a long period of time.
    • Focused attention. Being suddenly drawn to a specific stimulus, such as a loud noise or a flash of light. 
    • Selective attention. The ability to focus on one thing out of many, ignoring all the other stimuli around us. 
    • Alternating attention. The ability to switch the focus between two or more activities. 
    • Divided or limited attention. The ability that allows us to multitask, letting us concentrate on two or more things at once. This is similar to alternating attention, but rather than shifting focus, in divided attention people respond to different stimuli at the same time.
Kids paying attention
Children paying attention at a school in Banjul, Gambia. Source: H2O Alchemist/Flickr
  • 2. Memory. Involves the act of recalling different kinds of information, from events of the past to images and sensations. Scientists debate exactly how memory should be divided up, but the three main categories are short-term, long-term, and sensory.
    • Short-term memory. AKA primary or active memory, it retains information temporarily, only while you use it, or for a brief period afterward. It is also called working memory.
    • Long-term memory. This retains information for long periods of time. Long-term memory is often split between explicit and implicit long-term memory. Explicit long-term memories are those we consciously take time to form and recall, for example, names and phone numbers or learning information. Explicit memories can be episodic or semantic - formed from particular episodes or events, or general facts and information you learn over time. Implicit memories form unconsciously and can affect the way we think and behave, for example learning motor skills like how to ride a bike - and remembering how to do this even after going for years without riding a bike. In long-term memory, there are also more memory-related cognitive skills such as associative memory (the ability to learn and/or remember something by associating it with something else), and contextual memory (the ability to remember something through details of the context of that memory). 
    • Sensory memory. This allows you to remember sensations after the stimulation has ended, such as remembering the sensation of a person’s touch or the smell of a particular flower. We can also attach other memories to sensory memories, in which case, the sensory memory might move to short-term or long-term memory. There are different types of sensory memory, including iconic, which is obtained through sight; echoic, which is auditory; and haptic, which is through touch.
Memory process
A diagram of the memory process. Source: Erich Parker/Wikimedia Commons
  • 3. Logic and reasoning. The ability to reason, form concepts, develop conclusions based on evidence, solve problems (including using information or procedures that we’ve never tried before), or make a decision after recognizing a pattern and/or evaluating a set of premises defining a situation. Applying logic and reasoning is a basic cognitive skill that includes the ability to think logically about abstract concepts (abstract thinking), or about facts and observations in order to build a judgment (critical thinking), sometimes taking into account values and beliefs (ethical thinking), etc.
Reasoning types
Two types of reasoning. Source: Maltewoest/Wikimedia Commons
  • 4. Visual and auditory processing. The ability to use our senses of sight and audition to receive and interpret messages and learn from them. 

  • 5. Language processing. The ability to understand what is written and said. Language can be verbal and non-verbal, but scientists believe that either way, it is much easier for people to acquire initial language skills while infants. Researchers have shown that initial language acquisition - learning to speak in a first language needs to be done early on. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if language is not picked up as an infant, this cannot easily be made up for later on in life. However, this is not the same with learning a second language. While young children excel at implicit language learning - learning through listening and imitation, adults can benefit from more developed problem-solving skills and experience and can use this knowledge to process new information, such as the structure of a new language.

  • 6. Processing speed. The time it takes to do a mental task - the speed at which someone understands and reacts to information and produces a reaction.

  • 7. Thinking. Our ability to think about the act of thinking is called metacognition and it’s related to improved learning. 

  • 8. Response inhibition and emotion regulation. Response inhibition is the ability to hold back a natural, “automatic” reaction. It can be applied to emotion regulation, an advanced cognitive skill that helps us manage our emotions and stay “socially appropriate.” Emotion regulation strategies can be generally grouped into three categories: attentional control, cognitive reappraisal, and response modulation.

Non-cognitive skills vs cognitive skills

Non-cognitive skills refer to socioemotional abilities such as teamwork, perseverance,  motivation, self-discipline, goal-setting, organization, social awareness, and general interpersonal skills. They are generally skills related to motivation, integrity, and interpersonal interaction.

interpersonal skills
Source: PxHere

Non-cognitive skills develop at a much slower rate than cognitive skills, peaking in late adulthood; but they can actually strengthen cognitive skills to the point that they actually become dependent on each other.

Also known as "soft skills," non-cognitive skills are more related to an individual’s temperament, attitudes, and personality traits, but they can’t be “detached” from the intellect either.  

Importance of cognitive skills

Cognitive skills are basic for our functioning and essential for our development and survival. 

Some cognitive skills are not necessarily essential for survival (such as ethical thinking), but others determine our ability to process different kinds of incoming information at once, retain it, learn from it, etc. Because of this, cognitive skills play a vital role in adaptation and survival. 

Source: Happy survival/Pixabay

Just imagine a life without being able to pay attention to two or more stimuli at the same time (divided attention), or without being able to recall basic rules of nature like “fire burns” (something stored in your long-term memory probably since your earliest years), or without being able to learn new things. 

Healthy human beings start developing their cognitive skills gradually during childhood, a period of life in which the brain is more elastic and rapidly lays down new pathways and neural networks —meaning it has more neural plasticity. This is why it is said that children learn faster than adults, or that children "soak up information like a sponge."

Why are cognitive skills milestones important?

Cognitive development is the development of cognitive skills and includes brain development. It involves the creation of new neural pathways, which are a series of connected neurons that send signals from one part of the brain to another. While brain growth is particularly rapid in children and young people, new neural pathways can be formed at any time.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience, by creating new neural pathways and losing pathways that are no longer used.

During the first few years of life, the number of synapses, small gaps between neurons where nerve impulses are relayed, grows rapidly. This translates to an increasing number of connections between neurons.

As we age and gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning and it is how the brain adapts to change. It has been demonstrated that rest, exercise, learning new skills, and enriching your environment with some types of new experiences can all affect the neuroplasticity of the brain in positive ways.

The neuronal pathways and connections also become stronger the more we practice a skill. However, the increased plasticity of children's brains also means that it is generally easier for young people to learn new skills than older adults because they have a larger number of active neurons in comparison to adults.

Neuron illustration
Source: ColiN00B/Pixabay 

Although the development of cognitive skills has been traditionally explained using stages, cognitive development tends to be progressive and not abrupt, and rates and forms can vary among different individuals in different areas for different reasons. But in general, there are cognitive skills milestones that children are expected to achieve at certain ages. 

For example, according to the US Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC), two-month-old babies are expected to pay attention to faces. At four months, they should start babbling, reaching for toys with one hand, responding to affection, and copying some movements and facial expressions. As they grow into toddlers, they should learn to identify their own names, the people who surround them (differentiating them from strangers), the objects and shapes that they can see, etc.

Child reading
Source: Piqsels

Age-appropriate cognitive skills milestones are important because they serve as evidence of the child’s cognitive development. If he or she struggles and/or fails to meet these targets, it could be a sign of a developmental disorder.

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