What Is Cognitive Ability and Why Is It Important?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 22 September 2022

Published 25 August 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Cognitive abilities are natural brain-based skills that give you the ability to learn, perceive the world and cope with problems. Knowing how your brain completes cognitive functions such as accessing memories, processing and analysing information and using reason can help you during the job search and hiring process. When you understand your cognitive strengths, you can find a career that makes the best use of your natural abilities. In this article, we explain how you can assess and improve your cognitive ability.

What is cognitive ability?

Cognitive ability is the core skill set your brain uses to think, remember, read, reason, pay attention and learn. This is how you acquire knowledge. Each cognitive skill is vital for processing new information. They work together to help the brain understand the world and create useful stores of data.

The brain uses cognitive skills like critical thinking for both simple and complicated tasks. The skills link to how you process information, see patterns and analyse problems. Although they are an innate set of skills, you can improve your cognitive ability with training if you identify a weakness in a particular area.

What are the types of cognitive abilities?

Experts divide cognitive abilities into categories of attention, memory, logic and reasoning and information processing. These areas can share overlapping weaknesses because they interact with each other. Here are the different classifications of cognitive abilities:

  • Attention

  • Memory

  • Logic and reasoning

  • Auditory and visual processing

Attention

Attention is how well you can stay focused on a task over time, and this kind of focus is vital for doing well in a career. You need to remain focused even if there are distractions and other tasks to accomplish simultaneously. Attention also relates to how well your memory functions. Good attention means a more reliable short-term and long-term memory recall.

Attention deficit means that you cannot stay focused and quickly become distracted. If you have trouble completing your work on time, make a lot of mistakes or go from one task to another instead of staying focused, this could indicate a cognitive skill weakness that needs improvement.

Memory

Your memory is the sum of how well you recall information. Short-term memory refers to the information you received recently, whereas long-term memory involves recalling information from the past. Having a weak memory can change your knowledge of facts, dates, times, tasks and people. You may find it challenging to function well in a job if you cannot recall important information.

If you need to reread something shortly after reading it for the first time to remember the information, your short-term memory might need improvement. When someone has trouble with long-term memory, they may struggle to remember important facts or people's names, even if they have met several times.

Logic and reasoning

When you experience a problem and you need to find a solution, you use your logic and reasoning. If you can solve difficult problems and find solutions based on the materials you have available, you have excellent problem-solving skills. This is a direct result of your ability to use logic and reasoning.

People with strong logic and reasoning also find it easy to know what tasks to do and in what order. They feel calm and in control, and they can generally follow and understand instructions without issues.

Auditory and visual processing

Auditory and visual processing describes how well your brain explains the information you receive through sight and sound. You can use auditory and visual processing together with the other types of cognitive abilities to process information, such as using logic to understand symbols or pictures that you see and engaging your attention to ensure that you listen actively. In general, having strong auditory and visual processing abilities mean that you can interpret new information quickly.

Why do cognitive skills matter?

Cognitive skills matter because they help you perform well at work. Some employers use cognitive ability testing as part of the job application process, so having strong cognitive skills can also help you get a job. Employers who are looking for individuals with specific abilities and cognitive skills suited to a particular career typically use a cognitive ability test to ensure that you are the right choice of employee. This might come in the form of quizzes, questions or scenarios that require solutions.

Here are some qualities employers look for when assessing cognitive abilities during the hiring process:

  • Comprehending material

  • Recognising patterns

  • Analysing problems and finding solutions

  • Brainstorming

  • Focusing attention

Comprehending material

Most jobs require some type of training that involves new material that the employee must understand and process. Employers value people who have strong reading comprehension and can work without constant supervision. Therefore, your ability to read and understand new material can affect your independence as a worker.

Recognising patterns

When you can identify patterns of events, you will be better at solving problems, creating efficient working plans and finding new opportunities. Recognising patterns can also help you predict the outcome of future situations. These skills are good to have for any job at any level.

Analysing problems and finding solutions

To solve a problem, you must look at all of the factors involved and come up with possible solutions. By improving how you think about problems, you can find better solutions to even complex issues.

Brainstorming

Your career choice might involve thinking of creative ideas and solutions. Industries such as the arts, advertising, marketing, technology and business especially value this skill. If you are interested in a career in one of these industries, it's important to practise your creative brainstorming skills in case you are tested on them during the hiring process.

Related: Brainstorming Techniques: Importance, Methods and Steps

Focusing attention

In any job, it's important to be able to prioritise your work when you have several different tasks to do at the same time. You can achieve more when you focus your attention and stay organised. Employers value employees who can focus and achieve their goals on time and to a high standard.

How to improve cognitive ability

No matter how strong your cognitive abilities are, there is always room for improvement. When you take the time to assess your skills, you may notice some areas that are stronger or weaker than others. For the cognitive abilities that could use some attention, here are some steps you can take to improve them:

  1. Get physical

  2. Welcome new challenges

  3. Try brain games

  4. Sleep well

  5. Reduce stress levels

1. Get physical

Regular physical activity can improve your memory. This is because cardiovascular exercise helps the blood flow throughout the body and the brain, which can improve its ability to function. Physical activity also improves motor skills and coordination.

2. Welcome new challenges

When you have a new experience and expose yourself to new information, your processing, reasoning and analytical skills improve. This is because you have to learn new ways to think and communicate when you meet new people and see new places. Together, these new experiences and challenges improve your memory and reasoning as well as your ability to process information.

3. Try brain games

Today, there are a variety of brain-training games available either on the internet or as an app on your mobile phone. You can use an app like this as a fun way to strengthen your cognitive skills when you would otherwise have nothing else to do, such as while waiting for an appointment or sitting on the bus or train.

Related: 12 Cognitive Activities to Enhance Your Thinking Skills

4. Sleep well

Getting enough quality sleep is vital for mental health and good cognitive strength. Your brain needs to rest and repair in order to regenerate. It also needs to process the vast amount of information that you learned during the day. When you sleep, your brain files, stores and sorts out the information so that you can access it later on.

5. Reduce stress levels

Stress can affect your mental health and general well-being. When your brain is stressed, it is too busy coping with the pressure to perform its functions efficiently, so reducing that stress can help improve your cognitive skills.

To reduce stress, try meditating for 10 to 15 minutes a day or going for a long walk. Taking regular breaks from work can help as well, and some people find reading a book useful and calming. In general, you should do whatever works best for you.

Using your cognitive strengths

Identifying your mental strengths and weaknesses is a useful exercise because it puts you in a position to make improvements. You can use this information in the job search process to identify a potential career path or to find a company that is searching for people with those specific skills and strengths.

Even if you have a career that you enjoy and still wish to pursue, understanding your cognitive abilities will allow you to find areas where you could make improvements and continue to progress toward your career goals. You may find that your employer offers promotions, salary increases or increased responsibilities when you develop cognitive abilities that are specific to their organisational goals.

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