How to Improve Cognitive Skills, Your Core Mental Abilities

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Last updated February 22, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

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.

Imagine how much better life would 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.

You do this by stimulating your mind with the right activities and by taking measures to improve the 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 the brain understands and processes new information and recalls past knowledge to help us successfully live our lives.

Examples of Cognitive Skills

Here are some of the 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

Now, let’s cover the 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 recorded human history, it was thought that an individual’s intelligence level was set for life and could not be changed.

But in 2008, groundbreaking research confirmed that intelligence is fluid and that anyone could increase their cognitive abilities provided they engaged in mental activities that are novel and complex

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

" 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. 

A dramatic real life example of this is Albert Einstein, who firmly believed that his passion for the violin made him a better scientist

Here are some of the most significant, proven ways to optimize your cognitive potential.

1. Learn a New Language

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

Some of the proven cognitive benefits of being multilingual include: 

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

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2. Enjoy Music

Whether we listen to music, play an instrument, or dance, surrounding ourselves with music is a surefire way to boost mental performance.

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

Their brains are bigger, better connected, and more symmetrical

Research has found a correlation between musical training and improved executive function

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

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. 

Try a hobby that is unlike the things you normally do for fun.

If your favorite pastimes are physical, take up a cerebral hobby like genealogy. 

If you are normally sedentary, get outside to hike, bike, or take up geocaching.  

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

NUTRITION FOR THE MIND/BODY CONNECTION

It’s almost impossible to live a lifestyle that provides all the nutrients needed for good brain health and performance. The reason? All of us confront multiple nutrient thieves — stress, poor diet, insomnia, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and more — that steal nutrients that the brain needs to thrive.

Taking quality nutritional supplements:
  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

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Dr. Pat

4. Engage All Your Senses

Most activities that are 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 cooking are examples of activities that utilize all the senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — in novel ways.

Expand 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.

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

It affects brain structure and function in very real ways.

Stress depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges the brain’s amygdala (the fear center), and makes it hard for the 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. 

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.

2. Get Enough Sleep

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

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

This is not surprising because it is during sleep that the brain cleans and repairs itself and consolidates memories

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

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3. Stay Hydrated

The brain is about three-quarters water, so even mild dehydration can affect attention, memory, and other cognitive skills.

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

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

4. Use Caffeine Wisely

Caffeine, the most commonly used psychoactive drug, speeds up cognition in many ways, including improving mental processing speed and accuracy

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

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

5. Check Vitamin D Level

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

Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to slower thinking and poor cognitive function

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

Try Cognitive Enhancing Supplements

There are many natural substances purported to enhance certain cognitive skills, especially focus, attention, memory, and processing speed.

Here’s a brief rundown of the very best supplements for specifically improving these core cognitive functions.

Memory Supplements

Most people think of memory problems as the main manifestation of dwindling cognitive function.

Here’s a list of safe and effective memory boosting supplements:

  • acetyl-l-carnitine
  • alpha-GPC
  • Arctic root
  • Asian ginseng
  • bacopa
  • citicoline
  • curcumin
  • fish oil
  • huperzine A
  • magnesium l-threonate
  • phosphatidylserine
  • velvet bean
  • vinpocetine

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Supplements for Attention and Focus

When you can’t focus or pay attention, everything is harder and takes more time than it should.

These are the top supplements proven to help with attention and focus:

  • bacopa
  • citicoline
  • fish oil
  • huperzine A
  • phosphatidylserine
  • taurine
  • vitamin B12

If you have been diagnosed with an attention disorder, a number of clinical trials have found herbal remedies helpful for those with ADHD, including:

  • Asian ginseng
  • bacopa
  • ginkgo
  • kava
  • passionflower
  • pycnogenol®
  • valerian

Supplements for Faster Thinking

If your thinking isn’t as fast as you’d like, or as fast as it used to be, here are supplements that can improve processing speed:

  • acetyl-l-carnitine
  • Arctic root
  • bacopa
  • black cumin
  • branched-chain amino acids
  • citicoline
  • fish oil
  • ginkgo
  • lion’s mane mushroom
  • phosphatidylserine
  • vinpocetine
  • vitamin D
[Search our site to find comprehensive articles on these and other cognitive enhancing supplements.]

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You’ll notice that several of the supplements above show up on more than one list.

If you feel that you are in need of a general cognitive boost, these would be a good place to start.

Recommended: Upgrading brain health is key to making your brain work better.

Mind Lab Pro is the brain supplement I recommend because, by boosting your brain health, it can help you:

  • Improve your mental clarity and focus.
  • Boost your memory and your ability to learn.
  • Increase your capacity to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions.
See our MIND LAB PRO review.

Dr. Pat

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