Cognition - the superpower of our brains!
Cognition is just a fancy name for our brainpower. The word cognition comes from the Latin word cognoscere which means “get to know”. The magnificent piece of grey, lumpy matter housed in our heads is the source of much wonderment to the scientific community. There are lots that we still don’t understand about the brain but science is making leaps and bounds.
"Cognition is our thinking mind, our brain’s tool that we use to understand and successfully deal with everything around us” Martina Ratto, Cognitive Scientist
What we do know is that cognition is important. Very, very important in fact. Without good cognition, we can’t function.
So what exactly is cognition and why is it so important?
Cognition is our mind's superpower, our ability to think, make decisions, problem-solve, learn, focus, pay attention, respond with lightning speed and accuracy, plan, organise, be creative, regulate our emotions, and respond well to stress. Think about Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible and you can see good cognition at work.
And it doesn’t just stop there. Good cognition is the best-mate of our immune system, helping to protect us from burn-out and chronic inflammatory illnesses like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and long-Covid. When our mind is cognitively fit, we have the ability to adapt to difficult situations that life is notorious for throwing at us. Good cognition supports our mental health and helps us build resilience.
Our brilliant minds are made up of five core, cognitive areas:
Our Lamp - Attention
Our lamp allows us to focus, concentrate and avoid wayward distractions. When our attention isn’t tip-top, our internal lamp could be dimmed or switched off altogether and we can feel like we’re sitting in the dark, unable to focus on anything. Or we might feel like the lights are on but no-one is home. We might have trouble changing our focus from one thing to another. Our lamp can also get stuck focusing on one thing, which could lead to obsessive thinking or behaviours.
Our Calculator - Working Memory
Working memory is our ability to calculate, comprehend, problem solve and make decisions. When working memory is in a poor state, our internal calculator is broken or out of battery and we might feel as though we are pressing the buttons on it randomly, or in vain. It becomes incredibly difficult to solve problems and make even simple decisions; as a result, we may panic when facing any complexity (be it large or small).
Our Folder - Episodic Memory
Episodic memory lets us recall past events and learn from them. When our episodic memory isn’t great, our internal folder is messy and cluttered. Think about the junk-draw where random things are shoved and where we’d die of embarrassment if anyone were to rummage in there. When our internal folder is like that junk-draw it becomes tricky to recall past memories and avoid repeating the same mistakes. If our memories are not set in the right place we may also end up ruminating on them and being at risk of depression.
Our Timer - Processing Speed
Our timer gives us the power to switch tasks smoothly and perform with speed and accuracy. When our processing speed is lagging, our internal timer isn’t synchronised and we can feel trapped in our own thoughts. This can make learning new things or completing activities on time near-impossible. As a consequence we might feel easily overwhelmed and socially withdrawn, possibly leading us to isolation.
The Director - Executive Function
The Director, The Big Cahoot, The Daddy/Mummy, Big Cheese, Chief! Our executive function is our director, giving us the ability to plan, organise, achieve our goals, self-regulate and control our emotions. When executive function is in a poor state, it’s as though the person in charge has run away and we can feel like we are derailing out of control. This can make it difficult to manage our impulses and we can be prone to risky or socially unacceptable behaviours. When it feels like no-one is driving the bus it can also lead to anxiety.
These five core, cognitive areas underlie our brain’s power! Our everyday interactions with the world are driven by the way we think and the choices we make, and our cognition plays a key role in all of this, governing how well we perform in any given day. We all have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and by learning what these are, we can work on improving them. Having a harmonious and beautifully balanced combination of each of the cognitive areas is at the heart of being well.