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What is Cognitive Function?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cognitive function refers to a person’s ability to process thoughts. Cognition primarily refers to things like memory, the ability to learn new information, speech, and reading comprehension. In most healthy individuals the brain is capable of learning new skills in each of these areas, especially in early childhood, and of developing personal and individual thoughts about the world. Factors such as aging and disease may affect cognitive function over time, resulting in issues like memory loss and trouble thinking of the right words while speaking or writing.

Humans are generally equipped with a capacity for cognitive function at birth, meaning that each person is capable of learning or remembering a certain amount of information. This is generally measured using tests like the intelligence quotient (IQ) test, although these can be inaccurate at fully measuring a person’s cognitive abilities. Infanthood and early childhood are the periods of time when most people are best able to absorb and use new information, with most children learning new words, concepts, and ways to express oneself on a weekly or even daily basis. Capacity to learn slows down little by little as one gets older, but overall cognitive function should not deplete on a large scale in healthy individuals.

Certain diseases and conditions may cause a decline in cognition. Multiple sclerosis (MS), for example, can eventually cause memory loss, an inability to grasp new concepts or information, and depleted verbal fluency. Not all patients who suffer from the condition will experience these side effects, and most patients will retain the ability to speak as well as their general intellect.

Some research suggests that it is possible to enhance cognitive function and prevent a natural decline in memory and thought when caused by normal aging. Doing activities such as word problems, memory problems, and mathematics may “exercise” the brain so that fewer cells die or become inactive over time. This can result in a longer period of high-level cognition, and even increase cognitive skills in some individuals. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain needs regular stimulation in order to remain strong.

Any symptoms of decreased cognition should be evaluated by a doctor to rule out any serious conditions. MS, for instance, may initially present itself by subtle changes in cognitive function before progressing to more severe symptoms. In most cases, memory loss or the inability to think clearly are caused by simple issues that can be remedied easily. Fatigue or stress, for example, can both result in temporary loss of cognition. The problem generally resolves once the underlying issues have been addressed. Prolonged symptoms or those that worsen with time should always be taken seriously, however, as they could signal either a mental or physical disorder.

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Discussion Comments

By Kristee — On Jan 21, 2013

I recall taking cognitive function tests in school. At the time, I didn't know that was what they were called, but essentially that was what they were.

Everything from logic problems to memory games to questions about passages that I read were on these tests. I've taken some form of cognitive function test at every grade level. Even kindergarten had its own simple version of the test.

By feasting — On Jan 20, 2013

I've been told that memory loss in the elderly can be prevented by keeping the mind active. My mother has been doing crossword puzzles, word find puzzles, and reading books on a daily basis since she turned 65.

Sometimes, she forgets things that aren't very important, like insignificant memories. She seems to be doing fine with remembering the important events in her life, though.

Also, her wit and humor are as sharp as ever. I know that she will continue to keep her mind busy, because she would hate to lose hers.

By DylanB — On Jan 20, 2013

@Oceana – I wish I had that ability. I've been so tired lately from doing extra housework and taking care of my sick husband while working full-time, and my fatigue is causing me all sorts of problems with cognition.

At work, I keep forgetting to do things that my boss has asked me to do. I've had to start making myself notes and taping them to my monitor.

I also have been making mistakes in my work. This is not good, and I know that my boss has noticed a change in my usual behavior.

So, I totally believe that fatigue causes impaired cognitive function. I know that once this hardship is behind me, I will be able to get more rest and I will perform better at work. I just hope it isn't a long time coming.

By Oceana — On Jan 19, 2013

I didn't know that stress was known to cause a loss of cognitive function. I've been really stressed for a few weeks now, but it seems like I've been more motivated at work than ever because of it. I have the ability to shut out everything else that is going on in my life while I'm at work.

I do see how a person under stress could get distracted and lose the ability to comprehend while reading something, though. I have tried to read a book at night to wind down, but I keep finding myself having to go back and reread paragraphs, since my mind wandered and I had no idea what I'd just read.

By anon300161 — On Oct 29, 2012

I am interested in ambidexterity and cognitive function. For example, try brushing your teeth or wiping your butt with your less dominant hand, not to mention writing and drawing. I have taught myself to draw with both hands at the same time. Please feel free to contact me to discuss the mental and health benefits of this. I am currently in contact with the Hogan (conjoined) twins working on this theory for their creative and mental benefit.

By anon195346 — On Jul 11, 2011

I would look into your testosterone levels, lost at 50. I am 42, and I am fighting my doctor in getting treatment for low testosterone, when it has been proven to work for cognitive function.

By WildRacer — On Jul 28, 2010

@ArtDefender – In a related vein, I've been doing a great deal of research regarding cognitive function, especially as it relates to memory, as my grandfather has begun showing signs of dementia.

By ArtDefender — On Jul 28, 2010

I have spent the last few months interning with a program that deals in medical ethics, and cognitive function is a regular topic of discussion.

It is most frequently referenced when discussing a patient's "competence." By "competence" I mean someone's ability to understand his or her situation, the consequences of a particular course of treatment or lack thereof, and the associated ability to use that information to make an informed and reasoned decision.

By Axoltl — On Jul 28, 2010

I really find cognitive function to be a fascinating subject, and I know that a great deal of research is being conducted to learn more about how it works, what causes it to decline, and how it can be improved.

By anon79585 — On Apr 23, 2010

After age 50, doctors attribute loss of cognitive abilities to age, weight, and no treatments are offered. Personal experience from a 51 year old who now gets lost 1/2 mile from home.

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