Cognitive functions refer to the mental processes by which we perceive, think, remember, and learn.
Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have developed complex theories about how cognitive functions emerge through childhood. Generally speaking, it’s believed that we continue to develop cognitively well into our mid-20s (see later: theories of cognition).
In educational psychology, it’s believed that appropriate teaching techniques and interventions can support the development of higher-order cognitive skills, such as risk analysis and logical reasoning.
A range of lower- and higher-order cognitive functions is presented below.
Cognitive Function Examples
Age of Development: Perception develops progressively throughout infancy, with basics like color and depth perception established by approximately six months of age.
Perception is the act of recognizing and interpreting sensory stimuli, transforming raw sensory input into meaningful information.
This cognitive function enables us to understand and interpret the world around us through our senses.
Without perception, we would be unable to sense danger, appreciate beauty, or navigate through the world. It’s a necessary cognitive function that bridges the gap between the external world and our internal consciousness, making it possible for us to respond adaptively and appropriately to both physical and social stimuli.
Read our Full Guide: Perception in Developmental Psychology
2. Selective Attention
Age of Development: Selective attention begins to develop around the age of four and continues to improve and advance into adulthood.
Selective attention is the cognitive function that allows us to focus on a specific stimulus while ignoring irrelevant distractions.
This brain capability enables us to concentrate on important tasks or details in a world full of sensory distractions.
Selective attention is critical in various domains of life, from attending to an engaging lecture amidst a bustling classroom, to focusing on a critical work task in a noisy office environment. It cuts through the chaff of irrelevant data, helping us to remain focused and efficient in our daily tasks and interactions.
Read our Full Guide: Selective Attention
3. Working Memory
Age of Development: Working memory capabilities usually start to mature around the age of two and continue to develop well into adolescence.
Working memory is a cognitive function that maintains and manipulates information over short periods, acting as a mental workspace for complex cognitive tasks.
Working memory is crucial for a plethora of cognitive tasks including reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, problem-solving, and following directions. Its value stems from its role in processing information in real-time, allowing us to understand, learn, and apply the information we discover in both routine tasks and complex problem-solving endeavors.
You may know working memory by its other name, short-term memory, although scholars tend to use the concept of working memory these days to demonstrate how in this form of memory we are working with information by manipulating, sorting, and analyzing it.
Read our Full Guide: The Psychology of Working Memory
4. Long-Term Memory
Age of Development: Long-term memory starts to develop before birth with declarative memory, a type of long-term memory, typically evident around the first year.
Long-term memory forms the archive of information that we have stored over time, extending beyond what is held in working memory.
This cognitive function allows us to recall past experiences, learned facts, and skills that we’ve mastered. Long-term memory is invaluable because it forms the library of knowledge that we pull from to make decisions, understand the world, and form our identities.
Read our Full Guide: The Psychology of Long-Term Memory
Age of Development: Basic reasoning skills typically start to emerge around age 2 with significant development seen throughout the early school years.
Logical reasoning refers to the ability to analyze information and draw logical conclusions.
This function encompasses everything from deductive reasoning, where we apply general principles to specific situations, to inductive reasoning, which involves coming up with broad principles from specific observations (more on this in my piece on the different types of reasoning).
Reasoning underpins much of our decision-making and problem-solving processes. Without the ability to reason, we would struggle to make sense of the world, draw conclusions, or even make rational decisions.
This cognitive function is also instrumental for academic learning, technical jobs, everyday problem-solving, and in understanding and contributing to societal issues.
Read our Full Guide: The Psychology of Reasoning
6. Problem Solving
Age of Development: Problem-solving skills begin to emerge in the infancy stage. Babies, for example, learn to find a lost object or realize a goal by problem-solving. These skills then continually refine and become more complex throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Problem solving refers to the process by which a person identifies a challenge or obstacle and attempts to find a suitable solution.
Problem-solving skills are vital for all areas of life, and are used every day. From figuring out how to assemble a piece of furniture to tackling complex professional issues, the ability to solve problems effectively and creatively enhances performance in a variety of fields and improves an individual’s adaptability to change.
Read our Full Guide: The Psychology of Problem-Solving
7. Decision Making
Age of Development: Decision-making skills start to develop in early childhood and continue to refine into early adulthood.
Decision making is a cognitive function that involves selecting one option from multiple possibilities.
This function enables the person to evaluate alternatives and decide on the best course of action. Decision making is an integral part of everyone’s daily life—it is the basis for many personal and professional choices.
From choosing what to wear in the morning to deciding on a career path, decision-making skills help guide us through life in productive ways. The capacity to make informed, responsible, and thoughtful decisions is a key facet of personal and professional success.
Read our Full Guide: Exploring Sound Decision-Making
Age of Development: Judgment begins to develop during the pre-teen years and continues to refine well into adulthood.
Judgment is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.
In everyday life, individuals use their judgment to make decisions that can have far-reaching implications. From evaluating the potential impacts of financial decisions to determining the safety of a situation, good judgment is critical in helping us navigate the complexities of daily life.
Age of Development: Metacognition tends to emerge around the age of 5, but advanced metacognitive skills typically develop during adolescence and continue to refine into adulthood.
Metacognition is the cognitive function responsible for understanding, controlling, and reflecting on our own thinking and learning processes.
Metacognition holds great importance throughout various stages of life. Metacognitive abilities enable us to plan, monitor, and assess our skills and performances, from studying for a test to completing a project at work. By understanding our own thought processes, we can better control them to improve learning and problem-solving.
Read our Full Guide: The Most Important Metacognitive Skills
10. Executive Function
Age of Development: Executive functions start to emerge around the age of two and continue to evolve and mature up into early adulthood.
Executive function is a set of mental processes that allow us to manage, control, and regulate our thoughts and actions.
Executive function is essential for successfully navigating life’s challenges, both big and small. It impacts various aspects of cognition, such as working memory, problem-solving, planning, impulse control, and flexible thinking.
This function is central to our autonomy, enabling us to perform tasks like maintaining schedules, organizing work, and managing short- and long-term projects. Whether in school, at work, or dealing with life in general, executive function helps us keep track of tasks, prioritize, make decisions and regulate behavior, all of which are key for personal and professional success.
Read our Full Guide: What is Executive Function?
A Full List of Cognitive Functions
- Working Memory
- Long-Term Memory
- Problem Solving
- Decision Making
- Language Processing
- Spatial Processing
- Executive Function
Theories of Cognition
Over the years, several theories have been proposed to explain how these processes work. Here are some of the prominent theories related to cognitive functions:
- Information Processing Theory: This theory likens the human mind to a computer, suggesting that information is processed in stages, much like how a computer processes data. It emphasizes the ways in which individuals encode, store, and retrieve information.
- Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development: Jean Piaget proposed that children progress through specific age-based stages of cognitive development, each characterized by the development of new, and increasingly complex, thought processes. The stages are: Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational.
- Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Lev Vygotsky filled the blindspots of Piaget’s work by emphasizing the social context of learning. He was very much concerned with how culture and social interaction guide cognitive development. Sociocultural theorists, for example, demonstrate how people from different cultures experience cognitive development at different rates and in differnet ways. He also introduced the concept of the “zone of proximal development,” which is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can do with assistance.
- Working Memory Model: Proposed by Baddeley and Hitch, this model describes working memory in terms of three main components: the central executive, the phonological loop, and the visuospatial sketchpad. Later, the episodic buffer was added as a fourth component.
- Cognitive Load Theory: This theory, primarily associated with John Sweller, posits that our working memory has a limited capacity. If too much information has been provided at one time, we can no longer process it all, leading to overwhelm, burnout, switching-off, or forgetting.
- Schema Theory: This theory suggests that all knowledge is organized into units called schemas, which are the building blocks of cognition. As we learn, these schemas are modified, expanded, or created anew through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.
- Theory of Mind: This refers to the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs, intents, desires, emotions) to oneself and others. Generally, we use this theory when exploring when and how children begin to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from their own.
These theories offer different perspectives on how cognitive functions operate and develop. They have been influential in fields like psychology, education, and artificial intelligence, among others.
Cognitive functions enable us to interact with and make sense of the world around us. From perception to executive function, these cognitive skills impact every aspect of our lives. They form the basis of our understanding, guide our decision-making processes, and shape our behavior. Understanding these cognitive functions can help us enhance these areas and contribute to our overall cognitive development.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]