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The 15 most important cognitive skills

The 15 most important cognitive skills

January 25, 2022

Human beings are entities whose nervous system allows us to carry out a large number of mental processes, which in turn allow us to have a large number of cognitive skills that we adaptively use in order to adapt and survive.

Of this enormous quantity of capacities some are more fundamental to us than others. Throughout this article we are going to make reference to some of the most important cognitive abilities .

  • Related article: "The 11 executive functions of the human brain"

The most important cognitive skills

There are many skillful cognitives that we have and that we use constantly to survive, mostly even unconsciously. Some of the fifteen most important are the following.


1. Attention

One of the most basic cognitive skills, attention allows us focus our cognitive resources in such a way that we can operate and work with them .

Within her attention we can include abilities such as holding her, dividing her, moving her away from stimulation already perceived previously to save cognitive resources. Also included are the orientation responses to outgoing stimuli, allowing us to activate and react to possible threats.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Selective attention: definition and theories"

2. Memory

Being able to code, manage and retrieve information is fundamental in the face of generate learning experiences that allow us from acquiring a specific ability or ability to operate mentally with information or even generate memories that will be part of our history.


They include working memory (fundamental for any information processing), declarative (including episodic) and non-declarative, both short and long term.

  • You may be interested: "Types of memory: how does memory store the human brain?"

3. Self-awareness

Curiously little considered when we think of cognitive skills, it is a fundamental capacity without which we could not have an identity .

It is about the fact of being able to recognize themselves, to consider themselves to be independent of the rest of the environment. It also allows us to be able to have and self-manage a personal story and set and make learning meaningful.

4. Reasoning

This ability has always been considered extremely important, to the point that in the past it was considered that it was what separated us from the rest of animals .


The ability to reason allows us to draw conclusions from the observation of reality and act accordingly. We can include inductive reasoning (moving from particular cases to general axioms), deductive reasoning (deducting from the general what the behavior of particular cases will be like) and hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

5. Motivation and goal setting

The motivation allows the human being to acquire and feel the energy and the impulse necessary to initiate and maintain a certain course of action , allowing us to actively set and pursue our goals and objectives. The total absence of motivation could even make us not look for food or water to survive.

6. Association capacity

Being able to establish relationships between different events is a fundamental capacity not only for the human being but for any type of living being with the capacity to learn. In fact, is the basis of any type of learning .

7. Cognitive flexibility

If we always kept our perspective and vision of things we would not be able to learn not to face something contrary to our way of understanding reality. Being flexible allows us to be able to adapt to the new conditions and modify our schemes depending on what the experience dictates.

It also allows us to be able to take different perspectives and understand the motivations and thoughts of others , being of great help for socialization.

8. Troubleshooting

Deeply linked to the previous one, the ability to use the acquired knowledge, organize it and link it to the search for a solution to the problems we face.

9. Creativity and lateral thinking

Generating new strategies beyond the information and methods that we have prepared so far has allowed the evolution of the human being, for example, contributing to generate new technologies, techniques and procedures that allow us to reach our goals or solve a problem in the most efficient way.

10. Perception

The capacity for perception is something we usually take for granted, but the truth is that we can consider it one of the essential cognitive skills. It's about the ability to transform signals from the senses into information with which our brain is able to work to perceive in a coordinated way, for example, the different information that constitutes an image or what a person is telling us

11. Inhibition and behavior management

So important is doing something like being able to not do it, or inhibit our already initiated behavioral patterns to deal with new information or to change strategies if they are not being effective. It allows us to save time and effort, when not directly avoiding dangers and being able to adapt to the environment

12. Anticipation and planning

The past is important, but it is the ability to plan and anticipate results which allows us to start establishing plans and the appropriate actions to achieve our objectives. It also allows us assess risks and benefits , as well as the possible consequences of our actions.

13. Symbolization and interpretation

Something fundamental for the human being is the ability to generate elements that allow an idea to be represented, as well as the ability to assess what a particular action or symbol implies. This allows us, for example, communicate with our peers and socialize , something peremptory for a gregarious species like ours.

14. Language

Although more than a cognitive ability could be considered an activity or product of this, the truth is that language is a fundamental capacity when it comes to relating and transmitting information. We do not speak only of speech but also of literacy, gestures or expressions .

15. Metacognition

A cognitive ability of great relevance is the fact of being able to value and think about one's own cognition. Metacognition allows us to take into account our abilities and knowledge, analyze, for example, the type of information we lack to understand a situation or optimize and improve our capabilities.

Bibliographic references:

  • Lycan, W.G., (ed.). (1999). Mind and Cognition: An Anthology, 2nd Edition. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Stanovich, Keith (2009). What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.
  • Von Eckardt, Barbara (1996). What is cognitive science ?. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You - Crash Course Psychology #15 (January 2022).


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