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Whether we are taking a walk, chatting with a friend, putting together IKEA furniture, planning a budget, leading a complex project or contemplating a complex political theory, the brain is responsible for all of our moment by moment thoughts and actions.

Our understanding of how the brain operates has grown substantially in recent years. 

Everything we do as humans depends on a network of cognitive functions to be active and collaborating together. But what exactly is a cognitive function and how does it impact our everyday lives? We explore those questions in this blog.

If you would like to explore this subject in more detail, please watch our free webinar “The Brain: Our Most Important Asset”, the first in a five-part series on How Neuroplasticity Can Enrich Our Lives.

Watch the Webinar - The Brain : Our Most Valuable Asset

Defining cognitive functions: Each function is highly-specialized

A cognitive function refers to the characteristic job of a region of the brain, or a network of regions. Anything we do as humans relies on the various cognitive functions within our brains. 

For example, finding a bottle of ketchup within a fridge relies on our cognitive function referred to as object recognition, and the specific role of this function is to remember and recall specific details of objects. 

This cognitive function is like a camera in our heads that takes pictures of images so that we can match the object with a template created in our head when we see it again. This works for everything in our physical world, such as faces, works of art or landmarks.

Each cognitive function works across a continuum of capacity 

Each one of our cognitive functions operates across a continuum of capacity, from a superior level of functioning to a severe level of challenge. Our degree of functioning directly impacts our competence in carrying out tasks that involve that function. 

For example, if you have superior object recognition you can recall a house that you visited 20 years ago and remember the wallpaper, but if you have a significant deficit in object recognition then you won’t notice that your spouse cut five inches of her hair. 

Interestingly, there is a parallel cognitive “camera” in our left hemisphere that takes pictures, not of things, but of symbols - such as letters and numbers. That’s how we learn to read and spell. We take a picture of a word that we see, so that when we see that word we match it to the template that we’ve saved in our visual memory for symbols.

Cognitive functions work together

Complex mental processes require specific functions to work in concert. Here at Arrowsmith we love this idea because it really draws upon the analogy of an orchestra working in concert to create music.

Think of each cognitive function as an instrument, having very specific sound, purpose and contribution to the music. Depending on the piece of music, certain instruments (cognitive functions) will be called upon to play. Of course if all cognitive functions are playing well, then the sound is magnificent. 

If one or two are struggling, out of tune or less practiced, the piece will suffer. 

How cognitive functions make us who we are

Every task or situation we engage in involves a series of rich cognitive tapestry, and each of these functions are operating with their own degree of competency. Different people will have almost infinitely different combinations of capacity across different cognitive functions. 

Ultimately, our cognitive strengths and difficulties, and the range between, really shapes how we interact with the world.

This makeup of cognitive functions is called our cognitive profile, and it makes us who we are. 

The more we consider the makeup of our own cognitive profiles and the profiles of others, the more understanding we can bring to ourselves and the world. The more we understand the functions themselves, the deeper insight we can have.

A look at some key cognitive functions 

#1 - Symbolic thinking 

Within a language task, a conversation, a book, a project, and truly any part of our life our symbolic thinking capacity is called upon in the left hemisphere of our brain. This is the function that lights up whenever we are faced with a problem to solve.

A person with significant issues with symbolic thinking, will have attentional difficulties. They will struggle with keeping their attention and focus on achieving their goals, easily being distracted. Even a mild level will have a profound effect on how someone is perceived. They’ll often be seen as lacking motivation, mental initiative or appear lazy. 

A person with a high level of symbolic thinking will be a gifted problem solver and strategic thinker. 

#2 - Non-verbal thinking

Non-verbal thinking capacity is the CEO of the right hemisphere of our brain, which similarly generates ideas and solutions in non-verbal situations. It’s estimated that around 75 percent of our communication is non-verbal. 

This function of our brain relies on the interpretation of facial expression, tone of voice, body language and other cues to read, and navigate, the social situations around us. 

A person with significant issues with non-verbal thinking may struggle with socializing and under and overreact to events, while someone with mild issues may seem passive, shy or avoid participating for fear of social missteps. 

Meanwhile, a person with a high-level of non-verbal thinking will have high emotional intelligence, they’ll be able to work a room and take on leadership opportunities because they can generate infinite options in challenging situations.

#3 - Symbol relations

This is the lightbulb in our head when we get that “aha! moment”. It processes logical and conceptual relationships and ideas so that we can synthesize concepts, quickly grasp what is read or heard, gain insight, logical reasoning and help us see connections between ideas. 

Someone with mild issues with symbol relations requires extra time and effort before understanding what they read or hear, and this can lead to anxiety. A person with significant issues may feel like they are in a constant fog, not understanding why things happen and seeing the world rigidly in black and white. 

On the other hand, a person with a high level of symbol relations will be gifted at analysis, logic and debate, with sharp insights. 

These are just three cognitive functions. Our work here at Arrowsmith focuses on 19 cognitive functions, which impact our capacity to read, write, navigate our social world, navigate our work world and truly impact our ability to be a functioning, active and independent person. 

Are you interested in learning about how our cognitive functions work and how they can be enhanced? Get in touch with Arrowsmith today. Our team of cognitive enhancement specialists would love to help. Alternatively, take our 30-minute cognitive questionnaire and discover your unique cognitive profile. 

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Tara Bonner
Post by Tara Bonner
November 9, 2022
Tara Bonner collaborates with professionals and educators worldwide, envisioning the convergence of learning and neuroscience. Tara has witnessed that cognitive programming can be a transformative force not just for struggling learners, but for all seeking to experience learning with ease and joy. She's honored to be part of these discussions and an organization that's revolutionizing education by putting the "Brain in Education."