Cognitive Fitness: Chapter 2 – Cognition – what’s it all about?

‘Cognition’ is just a scientific term for the functioning of the human brain. Until recently measuring the cognitive performance, cognitive ability and mental health was a difficult challenge requiring laboratory conditions and very expensive equipment. However over the last few years, researchers have designed software that reliably measure the mental performance of different parts of the brain.

There are many different functions of the brain, each controlling the cognition of the human brain. These functionsare known as ‘domains’. There are 5 of these domains that seem to be most important and which can be measured using the software.

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The primary domains of the human brain are:

  • Attention: the ability to focus one’s perception on target visual or auditory stimuli and filter out unwanted distractions.
  • Executive functioning: the ability to strategically plan one’s actions, abstraction, and cognitive flexibility – the ability to change strategy as needed.
  • Psychomoter and Speed accuracy: Reaction time / processing speed: related functions that deal with how quickly a person can react to stimuli and process information.
  • Episodic Memory: the ability to encode, store, and recall information. In most studies memory is further divided into recognition, recall, verbal, visual, episodic, and working memory. Each type of memory has specific tasks associated with that memory function.
  • Working Memory: is the cognition system responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already-stored information, and is an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.

You can probably see that these domains matter hugely if you are involved in knowledge work. If for example your ‘Attention’ domain is not as effective as it could be, your cognitive ability to concentrate in meetings and whilst reading could be lower than somebody who has a better performing ‘Attention’ domain. Imagine if you were in a meeting with 4 other people and you missed a vital piece of the discussion. Regardless of how good your memory might be, if the information isn’t getting as far as your memory, then you won’t be able to recall it. So if at some future date when you are dealing with one of those four colleagues, they may well make an assumption that you absorbed the same information in the meeting as they did… but in fact you didn’t. You can probably see how this poor mental performance can lead to potential confusion. ‘Was that guy in the same meeting as you and I’?

Also, the workplace environment may matter more to you if your ‘attention’ domain is weaker than someone who is stronger in this area. You may, for instance, have a greater need for concentration and required a distraction free environment, whereas someone else may have enough concentration that allows them to block everything else out.

You can probably see that depending on your role, different domains have a greater significance to your cognition and effectiveness in delivering your role. So for instance if you are involved in a role where accuracy and speed are vital, perhaps if you are an airline pilot or an accountant then the ‘Psychomoter speed and accuracy’ domain may be critical to you. If you are a senior leader involved in determining strategy or planning, then ‘Executive’ function will be more critical when undertaking cognitive processes.

You can see pretty quickly that in a world where the brains of your people are your key tools in generating value that the cognitive ability, mental performance and effectiveness of these brain domains matter enormously.

What we wanted to do in our cognitive performance research, was to examine all the academic studies that had been done on the subject of ‘cognition’ around the world. We did this to establish what makes the most difference to the cognitive performance of different parts of the brain and identify what advice could be provided to make improvements. We then wanted to come up with a set of guidelines that help people do the right things to maximise their cognitive ability and enhance their mental performance.

So over the next 6 months we’re going to reveal the results from our cognition study, providing some guidelines that you can use to improve your own cognitive performance and those of your people.

Our next blog will provide an analysis of why breakfast and nutrition is vital for a knowledge workers cognition and mental performance.


Further Information


If you are interested in organisational performance, take a look at our 6 Factors of Knowledge Worker Productivity

Contact us to sponsor our future work

Contact us to apply this in your workplace

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