How to Improve Cognitive Skills, Your Core Mental Abilities

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Improving cognitive skills such as attention, memory, and information organization boosts your ability to focus, learn, and solve problems.

It’s human nature to want to continually improve all aspects of our lives.

Typically, we seek to get more fit and healthy, and to be more happy and successful.

But imagine how much better your life could be if you could think more clearly, learn faster, remember more, make better decisions, and solve problems more easily.

These core mental abilities are known as cognitive skills.

It’s now known that you can actively enhance these skills — by doing specific brain exercises and by improving the underlying health of your brain.

Cognitive Skills Defined

Cognitive skills are defined as “of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering).”

Basically, cognitive skills are how your brain understands and processes new information and recalls past knowledge to help you live your life.

Examples of Cognitive Skills

Here are some of the many mental functions that are considered cognitive skills:

  • abstract thinking
  • attention
  • critical thinking
  • decision making
  • focus
  • language
  • logic and reasoning
  • memory
  • mental flexibility
  • motor skills
  • perception
  • planning
  • problem solving
  • self-control
  • visual, auditory, and spatial processing

At the end of this article, we’ll go into the most important of these in greater depth.

But first, we’ll cover steps you can take to actively improve your cognitive skills and abilities.

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Mental Exercises to Improve Cognitive Skills

Throughout almost all of human history, it has been thought that your intelligence level was set for life and could not be changed.

But, just about 10 years ago, a study showed that intelligence is fluid and that anyone can increase their cognitive abilities with the right stimulus — specifically, mental activities that are novel and complex. (1)

This study also proved that enhancement of one cognitive skill could improve totally unrelated skills.

For example, Albert Einstein believed that his passion for the violin made him a better scientist. (2)

Here are some of the most significant ways to optimize your cognitive potential:

1. Learn a New Language

Brains of all ages can benefit from learning or speaking a second language. (3)

Some of the proven cognitive benefits of being multilingual include: (45, 6)

  • better listening skills
  • enhanced creativity
  • enhanced problem solving, planning, and decision making
  • greater cognitive flexibility
  • greater general intelligence
  • sharper memory
  • superior overall cognitive abilities

2. Enjoy Music

Whether you listen to music, play an instrument, or dance, surrounding yourself with music is a surefire way to enhance mental performance.

Musicians’ brains are measurably different than those of non-musicians.

Their brains are bigger, better connected, and more symmetrical. (7)

Research has found a correlation between musical training and improved executive function. (8)

Executive functions are high-level cognitive processes that let you process and retain information, make decisions, solve problems, block out distractions, exhibit self-control, and make plans. (9)

3. Stay Open to New Experiences

Stay curious and try new things.

Seek the company of people who have different interests or careers, or are from different social or cultural environments.

Get outside your comfort zone — it’s guaranteed to stimulate your brain.

Turn off the GPS and learn to read a map; develop your innate sense of direction to find your way around. (10)

Try a hobby that is unlike the things you normally like to do.

Engineers should learn to dance, while artists should learn to do math.

A hobby with unlimited potential for mastery such as art, music, gardening, or learning chess assures that there is always more to learn.

4. Engage All Your Senses

Most activities considered brain exercises, such as online brain training, doing mental puzzles, and even most of the activities mentioned above, use one or two senses, i.e., sight and sound.

To get the most mental stimulation, seek out activities that use as many senses as possible.

Spending time in nature, gardening, and baking are activities that utilize all your senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — in novel ways.

Improve Cognitive Potential With a Healthy Lifestyle

The second main way to optimize your cognitive abilities is by giving your brain what it needs to be healthy and function its best.

1. Reduce Stress

It’s not your imagination — when you’re stressed out, you can’t think straight! (11)

Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times, such as during exams, job interviews, and first dates.

It affects your brain structure and function in very real ways.

Read more —
You can find additional ways to manage stress in Stress Management Techniques That Work (in-depth review).

It depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges your brain’s amygdala (the fear center), and makes it hard for your brain to repair itself.

Stress impairs nearly every cognitive skill you rely on to live your life, including your ability to pay attention, remember, solve problems, make decisions, and think critically. (1213)

You can manage stress on a fundamental level by adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes eating unprocessed food, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and trying one or more relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or diaphragmatic breathing.

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2. Get Adequate Sleep

Lack of quality of sleep is bad news for your brain.

Even one bad night can affect your memory, concentration, coordination, mood, judgment, and ability to handle stress the following day.

This is not surprising when you realize that, during sleep, your brain cleans and repairs itself and consolidates memories. (1415)

According to UCLA’s Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD, losing one night of sleep affects your mental performance as much as being legally drunk. (1617)

3. Stay Hydrated

Your brain is roughly three-quarters water, so even mild dehydration can affect your attention, memory, and other cognitive skills. (1819, 20)

The effects of dehydration can be so pronounced that they can be mistaken for dementia!

Men need at least 2.5 liters (84 ounces) while women need 2.0 liters (67 ounces), according to the UK Natural Hydration Council. (21)

4. Use Caffeine Wisely

Caffeine, the most common psychoactive drug, speeds up your cognition in many ways, including improving mental processing speed and accuracy. (2223)

However, if you regularly consume caffeine, keep in mind that too much can be counterproductive.

Too much caffeine can increase stress, anxiety, and insomnia, which, in turn, will impair your ability to think clearly.

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic that affects over 1 billion people worldwide. (24)

Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to slower thinking and poor cognitive function. (25)

Unless you spend time outside in the sun year-round, it’s very likely that you are among those with subpar levels.

If you want to know your vitamin D status for sure, get tested.

You can talk to your doctor or order a vitamin D test kit.


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An In-Depth Look at Cognitive Skills and Abilities

Now, for those of you who want more details, here’s more about some of the most important cognitive skills. (26)

Attention and Response

Attention is the ability to choose and concentrate on relevant stimuli.

It’s the process of focusing your mind on a specific task and sustaining that focus, even when distracting external factors are present.

It is one of the most essential cognitive skills — we use it all day, every day.

There are at least three types of attention:

  • Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus while doing a task for an extended period of time.
  • Selective attention is the ability to focus and process information from only one part of the environment while excluding all others.
  • Divided attention is the ability to process various information and perform different tasks at the same time.

Of course, in life, you need to do more than just be attentive — you have to react.

And this is where a second cognitive skill comes in.

Response is the activity or inhibition of activity of an organism resulting from stimulation.

So being responsive does not always mean taking action.

It may mean restraining yourself from taking any action and continuing to focus your attention on where it should be.

Memory and Processing

Whenever you’re trying to remember something, be it a past event or a learned skill, you rely on your memory.

Historically, memory is defined by how long that information will be retained, i.e., long-term vs short-term memory.

Long-term memory is the recollection of an unlimited amount of information beyond the immediate past.

This type of memory has an infinite preservation time.

There are three sub-types of long-term memory:

  • Episodic memory is your personal recollection of everyday events. It covers the “who, what, where, when and why” memories. (27)
  • Semantic memory is an idea or concept not drawn from personal experience. These are ideas and concepts that are common knowledge. (28)
  • Procedural memory is knowing how to perform different procedures (i.e., motor skills). (29)

Short-term memory, also commonly referred to as working memory, is the temporary storage of small bits of information, usually for only 15-30 seconds.

Your short-term memory acts as a filter, deciding what’s worth keeping and what should be discarded.

Processing also plays an important role in memory formation.

Processing is the capacity to access memories relevant to a given situation, including the speed with which a mental task is done.

It is the time that elapses between receiving information and understanding and responding to it.

The activities that require processing can vary from something simple to complex cognitive tasks.

Information Organization and Inductive Thinking

Information organization is the ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or new procedures.

Information organization begins with planning.

Planning is defined as the ability to “think about the future” or mentally prepare for performing a certain task or achieving a specific goal.

Problem solving is the capacity to understand and resolve problems where a solution is not immediately obvious. (30)

Inductive thinking or reasoning is the ability to make broad generalizations from specific observations. (31)

Improving Cognitive Skills: Take the Next Step

The human brain carries out an amazing array of complex tasks using abilities that we collectively call cognitive skills.

There are two main ways to maximize your cognitive potential.

First, you can stimulate your brain with new and challenging mental activities.

And second, you can adopt healthy lifestyle habits to enhance your overall brain health and function.

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