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Cognitive abilities: what they are, types, functioning and stimulation

Cognitive abilities: what they are, types, functioning and stimulation.

Cognitive abilities: what they are, types, functioning and stimulation.

What are cognitive abilities?

Cognitive abilities are a group of mental processes related to information processing that allow us to interact and relate adaptively in our daily lives. We have different capacities such as memory, attention, language… that enable us to respond to stimuli. We can intervene on these capacities by enhancing and improving them.

From the moment we are born we are continuously interacting with the environment around us. In that first moment of arrival to the world, the baby’s crying is produced automatically and innately, it sends us a message that tells us: I am here, I am breathing and I need someone to take care of me.

From birth and through the stimuli we receive in our development, both from the environment and from the people around us, prints are generated in our central nervous system through the specialization of groups of neurons, associated with well-defined and well-determined functions, until we reach a sophisticated and perfectly meshed system that allows us to relate to the world in an adaptive, adjusted and adequate way, responding to the demands it makes on us and satisfying the needs that allow us to preserve life. This refined, select, delicate and precise system is formed, among others, by cognitive capacities.


We can define cognitive abilities or cognitive skills as a set of aptitudes, attitudes, processes and faculties of our mind that allow us to perceive, attend, process, select, interpret, analyze and respond to everything and everyone around us and to be able to adapt ourselves adequately to our environment and to the different contexts and situations that are presented to us at any given moment and which require a reaction, either by action or by inhibition of behavior, on our part.

We receive stimuli from the world in which we live through our senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are continuously receiving information. Another system that provides us with data that we must take into account is the somatosensory system, which provides us with information related to pain, temperature, the position of the body and the different organs that make it up. Of all the information we receive part is processed by our brain, which chooses the most relevant stimuli to interpret the environment around us and through its analysis we generate an appropriate response to the situation in which we find ourselves at that moment and that we must face and translate it into a behavior, we can do this because our cognitive abilities are working.

The most important cognitive capacities

Memory, attention, perception, language, executive functions, orientation, reasoning, motivation, mental flexibility, decision making, planning, problem solving… are the most important cognitive capacities, all of them are related to information processing. We receive a stimulus or input, interpret it and give a response or output through an action or inhibition of a behavior.


Let’s take memory as an example, this capacity allows us to remember that tomorrow we have a doctor’s appointment, how to make a favorite recipe, how to drive a car or at the most basic level how to get dressed, the order in which we have to put on the different clothes and what type of clothing we should wear in relation to the weather or what we’re going to be doing at that moment, something that seems so simple, but is so important for a proper vital development.


Through attention we can focus our interest on the information that is relevant to us as it is presented to us. We perform this activity continuously and often unconsciously.


Perception allows us the first approach to stimuli, the first acknowledgement of them, to capture them, as the nomenclature of this capacity indicates, to perceive them, to realize that something is calling us.


Language is the ability that allows us to differentiate ourselves from other animals. We have a code generated to translate our feelings and thoughts into words understandable by the rest of human beings around us. We can explain the sequencing of an action, tell our memories, express our needs, it also allows us to read instructions, understand what others are telling us, write a shopping list, etc. The ability of language is divided into spoken language and this is expressed and received, and written language which is divided into writing and reading.

Executive functions

Executive functions are a group of skills that allow us to plan actions, make decisions, generate an action plan, evaluate goals and subgoals, monitor the different goal-oriented steps, reorient and correct actions that deviate us from the action we want to achieve, make the final and intermediate objectives flexible, promote and initiate the beginning of actions, organize, anticipate, inhibit… A complex system of processes that occur in an orderly and simultaneous manner.


Orientation enables us on the one hand to be correctly integrated in space and time, to know where we are physically, what day it is today, what season of the year and what part of the day, and on the other hand it provides us with the ability to pay attention to information from the environment that is useful to ensure our survival. For example, hearing a loud noise because something has fallen or perceiving the smell of gas if there is a leak.


Reasoning empowers us to extract an appropriate analysis from both known and unknown situations that may be analogous to those we are familiar with. For example, if thunder sounds it is because there is a storm and if there is a storm, it will rain. Based on this interpretation we can take an umbrella if we are going to go outside.


Motivation gives us the option of orienting ourselves towards a certain resource or procedure that facilitates the satisfaction of our need, generating or reinforcing the impulse we need to initiate a behavior in order to obtain this satisfaction.

Functioning of cognitive abilities

Cognitive abilities do not function in isolation, but rather each action we perform, each decision we make that generates a certain behavior is the result of the functioning of different abilities at the same time. In this way, we achieve, jointly and in combination, an adequate functioning in our daily life.

Cognitive skills allow us to carry out all the activities we perform, whether they are accompanied by a motor behavior, as if we are simply remembering something sitting on the couch or inhibiting an inappropriate behavior.

We use them continuously without being aware of it, from the moment we open our eyes every morning and start our day. They are necessary to have memories, perform actions, learn, communicate, know how to act, give answers, generate behaviors, conducts, attitudes, be motivated, analyze, judge a fact… All the activities we perform require cognitive abilities.

Every morning when we wake up we begin to activate a series of skills. When we take a shower, get dressed, prepare breakfast… All these actions are possible because our cognitive abilities have been put into operation.

For example, the action of preparing breakfast involves attention, perception, memory, decision making, orientation or executive functions, among others. When it comes to getting dressed, memory is involved, to remember where we keep the clothes we are going to wear, which garment is suitable for the season of the year and the weather that day. Perception also intervenes, making us feel cold or hot, attention, which helps us to put on our clothes from the beginning to the end without deviating to other stimuli that we continue to receive unconsciously, decision making, mental flexibility, executive functions… All of them act at the same time to allow us to perform our behavior in the right way.

Location of cognitive abilities

Some of these abilities or skills can be associated with specific and localized regions in our brain. For example, the area associated with language is located in the left frontal lobe of the brain in more than ninety percent of people. It is known as Broca’s Area. Knowing this, if a person has a stroke or develops a tumor, and diagnostic tests indicate that it has occurred in this region, we can deduce that this person will have a language deficit and we can establish a stimulation program to alleviate or recover this deficit.

Another cognitive capacity such as memory is located, among other regions, in the hippocampus, thalamus, amygdala, mammillary bodies and cerebellum.

Other capacities, such as attention or perception, are not clearly associated with specific regions of the brain, but their activation occurs in a more diffuse way in different brain regions, distributed throughout the different lobes of the brain, which are activated for their functioning.

Stimulation of cognitive abilities

Neuropsychology is the science responsible for studying the functioning of the different cognitive abilities, which regions of the brain are activated for their functioning, how to enhance and stimulate them to achieve optimal functioning of the same, recover them in case of deficit and maintain them and slow their deterioration in dementia. The aim is to maintain the autonomy and independence of people, getting their brain function as adequate as possible.

Through appropriate stimulation exercises we can influence the functioning of cognitive abilities. With the correct neuronal excitation we achieve the activation of the different neurons involved in the optimal functioning of the different capacities and therefore we achieve an adequate adaptation to the context. Thus, we generate the most efficient behaviors or behaviors of response or compensation to the demands of the vital circumstances at any given moment.

Stimulation tools as a way to slow down cognitive deterioration

There are tools that provide us with this stimulation that results in the optimization of the functioning of our cognitive abilities. This stimulation is aimed at brain neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the central nervous system to assume the functions circumscribed to a certain area in another completely different area, either by proximity or by relocation of the function or capacity. Our brain could modify its structure through brain stimulation, reorganizing its neuronal specificity, providing other regions and therefore other neurons with reduced or deficient activities due to physiological or physical causes. With the stimulation we would try to promote the preserved capacities to instigate the neuronal activation of nearby regions that at that moment are deactivated or their functioning has slowed down.

The instruments of cognitive stimulation have proved to be an effective tool in the treatment of the loss of cognitive abilities associated with age, due to physiological or physical causes and the losses that have to do with the diagnosis of dementia, thus, the stimulation in the latter group of people, leads to a slowing in the deterioration associated with the aforementioned pathology, ensuring the independence and autonomy of the person for a longer period of time than if no action is taken by stimulating their abilities.

Existing tools divide interventions into exercises associated with different cognitive abilities. And although it is not possible to train in isolation, without activating other brain areas associated or complementary to the stimulation that we want to perform, the structure of these tools is practical in the operational level of the professional who has to use it.


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