What Are Cognitive Abilities? (Definition and Types)

Updated February 3, 2023

A person holds lightbulbs.

Cognitive abilities are a collection of natural skills that include such things as listening, perception and attention to detail. Developing and strengthening your cognitive abilities can help you during the hiring process and throughout your career.

In this article, we discuss five types of cognitive abilities, why these skills are important and how you can improve them.

What is cognitive ability?

Cognitive ability and cognitive skills refer to how an individual processes information, recognizes patterns and analyzes problems. Whether you are searching for a new job or changing careers, understanding how you access memory, process information, apply reason and perform analysis can help you during the hiring process and well beyond.

Related: 10 Ways To Improve Your Focus at Work

4 Types of cognitive abilities

There are four main types of cognitive abilities, including the following:

1. Attention

Attention is the ability to stay focused on a task despite distractions or having multiple tasks to perform at once. Focus is critical for strong job performance as it can affect the impact you have on your role. Attention directly relates to memory function, helping you strengthen both short-term and long-term memory recall.

Attention deficit might be a factor if you have trouble staying focused or are easily distracted. Going from task to task, making frequent mistakes or not finishing projects on time are three examples of a cognitive skill weakness. If you have experienced any of these habits, you may benefit from improving your attention and focus.

Related: Attention to Detail: Definition and Examples

2. Memory

Memory is your ability to recall information, whether it is recent (short-term memory) or from the past (long-term memory). Weak memory can alter perceptions about facts, tasks, dates and times.

If you find you need to reread material or ask for directions midway through a task, your short-term memory may be lacking. Trouble recalling names or struggling to remember important facts may be indicators that your long-term memory would perform better with improvement.

3. Logic and reasoning

These cognitive strengths refer to the ability to assess a problem and find a solution. Strong problem-solving skills are a direct result of your ability to use logic and reasoning.

Do you frequently ask what to do next, feel overwhelmed or have trouble understanding instructions? Improving your logic and reasoning skills can help increase cognitive capacity and expand your capability to find solutions to complex issues.

4. Auditory and visual processing

Auditory and visual processing involves interpreting the information we receive through sight and sound. Auditory and visual processing works in conjunction with other types of cognitive tasks such as understanding symbols (like letters and numbers) and visualizing solutions. With this cognitive ability, the speed at which information is processed is also a factor.

Cognitive tasks like understanding written text, deciphering a map or following directions are supported by the ability to comprehend. If it is difficult to find your way using a map or if you struggle to solve math word problems in a timely manner, this could indicate that your processing speed may benefit from improvement. In general, strong auditory and visual processing skills mean less time spent trying to understand new information.

Cognitive Ability Skills Required Example
Attention Ability to stay focused Multitasking at work
Memory Ability to recall information Remembering where you put your keys
Logic and reasoning Problem-solving Deciding whether to move to a new city, take a new job, etc.
Auditory and visual Interpreting through sight and sound Deciphering a map

Read more: Learning Styles for Career Development

How to improve your cognitive abilities

While you might have strengths in some cognitive abilities, there’s always room for self-improvement. Here are five ways you can improve your cognitive abilities:

1. Engage in physical activity

Studies show that regular physical activity can improve hormone function, which enhances memory. Cardiovascular fitness translates to better blood flow, which supports brain function. Physical activity improves motor skills and coordination, while endurance training has been proven to protect the brain.

2. Accept new challenges or experiences

Not only does a new experience expand your processing skills, but it can also improve your reasoning and analysis skills by exposing you to new ideas. Meeting different people and exploring new places can introduce you to new ways of thinking, communicating and problem-solving. This can improve memory, test your reasoning skills and speed up your ability to process information.

3. Play brain games

There are a variety of brain games available for mental exercise. These are not only fun to play, but they can also improve your cognitive weaknesses and develop your strengths. Practicing these games for a few minutes each day can refine your problem-solving and processing skills.

4. Get quality sleep

Getting an appropriate amount of quality sleep allows your brain the time it needs to repair and regenerate by processing the information you have learned throughout the day. Sleep triggers the brain to file, store and compartmentalize information for retrieval later on.

5. Reduce stress

Reducing stress gives your brain the freedom and space to perform its functions as efficiently as possible. To reduce stress, you might consider reading or meditating daily for 10-15 minutes, or scheduling some time each week to turn off your devices and put away your work.

Related: The Best Ways To Strengthen Your Logical Thinking Skills

Why are cognitive skills important in the workplace?

Now that you’re able to identify cognitive skills and pinpoint ways to improve them, how do they matter in the workplace? As you apply for jobs, you will notice that some applications and interviews include quizzes, questions or scenarios that assess your cognitive abilities. Employers hiring for roles that require strength in a certain cognitive skill might ensure candidates are capable before extending a job offer.

Here are some of the qualities employers might look for when assessing your cognitive ability during the hiring process:

To understand instructions

Comprehending material presented to you is an important part of any job. Whether it's a training manual or a project outline, the ability to digest material through reading comprehension and recognition means you can be self-sufficient with tasks.

To recognize patterns of events

The ability to recognize patterns lends itself to strengths in solving problems, establishing efficient processes and identifying opportunities. These skills are beneficial in any role no matter your industry or job level. Focusing on improving pattern recognition over time will help you grow in your career.

Related: Top 10 Skills To Put on Your Resume

To analyze problems and troubleshoot solutions

The ability to analyze a problem means you can inspect it objectively from all angles to find solutions and determine the best outcome. By expanding your thinking in different directions, you can develop skills to find creative solutions to even the most complex problems at work.

To brainstorm

Many roles require candidates who can come up with several creative ideas and solutions. Some industries that value brainstorming skills include the arts, advertising and marketing, tech and business. Practicing creative brainstorming with puzzles and other mental activities can help you improve brainstorming skills for potential tests during the hiring process.

Related: 11 Active Listening Skills To Practice

To remain focused

You will be required to complete several different tasks with varying deadlines and urgency levels in nearly any job. By improving your focus, you can prioritize tasks and organize your schedule. Doing so can help you achieve goals specific to your role, increasing your chances at promotions and other career opportunities.

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