What are cognitive skills?
With upwards of 100 billion neurons and over 1 trillion connections between those neurons, the brain is an immensely complex organ. While much remains to be learned of its inner workings, an important fact has become clear in recent decades of research: the architecture of the brain is not static; it is capable of growth and change in ways that resemble the capacity for growth and change of other physical structures in the body. This is the science of neuroplasticity. Brain development is malleable, “plastic,” and is often compared to the development of a muscle, which grows through repeated or increasing use and atrophies or shrivels through neglect or disuse. The analogy can be extended to compare overall mental fitness with overall physical fitness.
Different aspects of physical fitness such as strength, speed, agility, flexibility, cardio-vascular strength, muscle memory, and endurance, work together to constitute physical fitness. A snowboarder, for example, needs all these skills working in sync to ride successfully from the top of a mountain to the bottom, yet each of the skills can be trained individually off the mountain: strength with weight-lifting, speed with running, flexibility with yoga stretches, and so on.
In a similar fashion, different aspects of brain fitness such as attention, memory, information processing speed, auditory and visual processing, mental flexibility, as well as various higher brain functions such as logic and reasoning, emotional self-regulation, and problem solving work together when an executive makes a decision. Yet each of these skills can be individually targeted for strengthening. And just as some snowboarders might be flexible but need to train for strength, some students—or executives— might have strong processing speed or visual processing but need to strengthen attention, memory, emotional self-regulation or problem-solving skills.
Attention is a prerequisite for all other cognitive skills. It is the ability to manage competing distractions in our environment in order to focus on a particular object, action, or thought. If attention is lacking, perceptual inputs are fleeting and not likely to register in memory.
Memory is often thought of as a filing cabinet of information, a static storage and retrieval system with a fixed location in the brain. But memory is actually a fluid and dynamic process of making connections and associations across the brain’s neural networks. Essentially, the more often or vividly something is experienced or the more connected it is with other experiences and information, the more likely it is to be remembered. Working memory is the ability to hold, manipulate, and evaluate multiple data inputs. As the “working desk” of memory, it underpins the learning process and high-order executive functions.
Processing speed is the ability to process information fast enough to accomplish a task within the allotted time.
Auditory processing is the ability to process information that is heard.
Visual and Spatial Processing
The ability to process information that is seen and to interpret the relationship of objects in space.
The ability to shift quickly from one mental process to another.
Executive functions are not restricted to corporate management. These high-order skills begin to develop in early childhood as children experiment with the material properties of their world, engage in role-playing mimicry of adults, and develop a healthy concept of self. Supported by a strong working memory, executive functions include the capacity for anticipating outcomes through pattern recognition; problem solving through emotional self-regulation and logical reasoning; and goal-oriented behavior that entails decision-making, planning, and the persistence to carry actions to their conclusion.
Targeted training within the context of a holistic approach to cognitive skills development Could your child’s cognitive processing skills be stronger? Take a moment to consider whether your child has processing skills that could be strengthened. A child who struggles with even one issue in a category could benefit from cognitive skill training in that area. Difficulty with two or more issues could indicate a critical need to take action.
Visual and Spatial Processing
A good reference site: Sharp Brains