Cognition is a term related to acquiring knowledge and our mental functions involved in learning and understanding. It has its roots in Latin, the word ‘cognoscere’ meaning “to know, to learn” and is our ability to integrate and process new information and translate it into knowledge. We can process and absorb this new information, incorporate it in new knowledge, and make decisions based on what we experienced through a complex system of perception, feeling, knowing, thinking, and remembering.
To translate the knowledge into making decisions, we need a system of cognitive processes to help us interpret the world around us. Different cognitive functions play a role in these cognitive processes and thanks to them we make choices and decisions forming the life we live in.
Attention allows us to focus on a specific stimulus in the environment, and filters unrelated information. It can also detect how quickly information is processed. Memory is the ability to encode, accumulate, and retrieve information from the past through different stimuli that we receive from different senses like hearing, vision, taste, touch, smell. Thought allows us to integrate received information and knowledge and make a connection between them. It does this by engaging special functions called executive functions such as decision making, problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, higher reasoning, and “inhibitory control” – the ability to resist impulses in decision making. Processing speed is a speed of processing information, synthetising it, and integrating it with previous knowledge.
Cognitive processes work constantly together as a team without us noticing them. For instance, when you want to cross the street, you will look for a pedestrian crossing. The crossing lines shift our attention to cross in the right place. We then look right and left, and the army of cognitive functions works in milliseconds to ‘tell us’ if its safe to cross or not. If there is a car approaching, we recall from our memory how to react.
What happens if you experience changes to cognition? Your mental and physical performance isn’t what you are used to?
For example, you can’t stay focused anymore, you don’t remember simple things and recalling a telephone number is mission impossible. Your last tennis game was slow and reaction time terrible. You are not as efficient as you used to be in task switching and having attention at work. Don’t panic. Everyone experiences mental fatigue and, whether we want it or not, we are all prone to slight cognitive changes due to aging. Can you solve cognitive problems?
You cannot change your genetics, but there are things you can do to boost your mental and physical performance. Firstly, introduce new brain foods to your diet, have sufficient night rest, and limit stress. Secondly, create new habits in your life. The brain adapts to change in response to new stimulus by altering its functional and structural properties in a concept called neuroplasticity, which results in learning and acquitting new skills. As you get older, more effort is required to stimulate greater degrees of neuroplastic change so the more you use your neural circuit, the stronger it gets. Performing challenging tasks will create new neural pathways and will strengthen the existing ones. Learn something new like knitting, drawing, or playing an instrument. Meditate. It is scientifically proven that mindfulness meditation is intimately linked to improvements of attention and cognitive flexibility.
The main lifestyle intervention that has proven to reduce the risk of cognitive decline is physical activity. When physical exercises such as aerobic exercise, weightlifting, yoga, tai chi, fitness workouts, or dancing, are part of your lifestyle the more benefit there is for your cognitive health. A recent publication in British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that resistance and aerobic training increased older adults’ physical condition and boosted their brain functions including attention, processing speed, and executive functions. We know that cognitive and physical health are inseparable, and that is why at Sparkd our trainings include physical exercise, cognitive work, and visual or audio stimuli. Dual-task training is best for maximising physical and brains’ overall cognitive functions: you can work on your processing speed, attention, memory, or higher executive functions while doing your squats or lunges.
Curious? You can test your cognitive functions with our validated Brain Health Assessment that will give you a helicopter-view on what areas of cognition need more attention. We can then design a programme for you that will not only improve your physical fitness but enhance cognitive brain function as well.