What are Cognitive Functions?

Cognitive functions are the abilities that allow us to interact with the world in an adequate and effective way. They correspond to different skills necessary for daily life.
What are Cognitive Functions?

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 08 June, 2022

Cognitive functions are the intellectual capacities of a person. Thanks to them, basic thinking activities can be performed, such as the following:

  • Selection
  • Reception
  • Storage
  • Transformation
  • Elaboration
  • Information retrieval

In practice, cognitive functions allow us to perform any kind of activity. They include, for example, orienting ourselves in space, speaking, reading, writing, and listening to music. Without them, it’s impossible to interact with reality.

There are several types, but they’re all interrelated. Therefore, if one of these functions is altered, it’s very likely that others will also be affected.

What are cognitive functions?

Cognitive functions are the mental processes that allow us to carry out any task or activity. In short, we could say that they are the functions that allow us to capture, filter, and process information.

As we’ve already noted, there are several different types of them. Let’s take a closer look.


Orientation is an ability that makes it possible to be aware of ourselves and the context in which we find ourselves at a specific moment. It’s essential to locate ourselves in time, space, and our individual reality.

There are three ways this ability manifests itself:

  1. Personal: This is the ability to assimilate and integrate information about one’s own identity and personal history.
  2. Temporal: This is the ability to place events or situations in time chronologically.
  3. Spatial Orientation: This is the ability to identify where we are, where we’re going, or where we’re coming from.


Reception is the ability to recognize information that has been previously learned. There are simple and complex forms of reception.

The former are those in which only one sense is involved. The latter involve several senses at the same time.

From this point of view, we find the following:

  • Visual reception: The ability to recognize stimuli through sight
  • Auditory reception. The recognition of stimuli through hearing
  • Olfactory reception: The ability to recognize stimuli through smell
  • Gustative reception: The recognition of stimuli through taste
  • Tactile reception: The ability to recognize stimuli through touch
  • Body schema reception: Recognizing the body and its parts as a whole, as well as what can be done with each element of it (this also involves orienting the body in a specific space)
Sentidos en las funciones cognitivas.

Sight puts us in contact with reality, but it doesn’t act alone. In reality, it combines with all the other senses.


Attention is the capacity to generate a state of activation, direct it, and maintain it in an adequate way, so that information can be processed in a correct manner. It refers to the processes of observation and alertness, which allow us to become aware of what is happening in the environment.

There are 3 different types of attention:

  1. Sustained attention: This is a constant focus of attention for a prolonged period of time. This state is also known as vigilance.
  2. Selective attention. This involves focusing attention on something without allowing other stimuli to interfere to interrupt that process.
  3. Alternating attention. This means shifting the focus of attention from one task to another in a fluid manner.

Likewise, there’s another process that is part of the cognitive functions of attention. This is the speed of processing. This is the rate at which a task is developed or the time it takes someone to issue a response after having received a stimulus.

Like this article? You may also like to read: The Modular Theory of Mind: How Does the Human Brain Work?

Executive functions

Executive functions correspond to complex mental processes. They allow planning, organizing, guiding, reviewing, regularizing and evaluating one’s behavior, either to adapt or to achieve a goal.

Among the executive functions are the following:

  • Reasoning is the ability to relate ideas or concepts so that a conclusion can be drawn or a judgment constructed.
  • Flexibility is the ability to modify the behavioral strategy so that it’s possible to adapt to the new demands of a specific reality.
  • Inhibition is the ability to ignore stimuli or information of little importance.
  • Temporal estimation is the ability to estimate the passage of time or the duration of an event.
  • Planning is the ability to elaborate effective sequences aimed at achieving a certain objective.
  • Working memory is the complex system that allows maintaining, manipulating, and transforming the information found in the mind.
  • Decision-making is the ability to contrast and weigh various options, as well as their possible outcomes and consequences.
  • Dual performance is the ability to perform two tasks simultaneously, without losing attention to any of them.
  • Multitasking or branching is the ability to interleave the performance of several activities at the same time without losing the thread of any of them.


Praxias are cognitive functions that enable organized movements to achieve a goal or carry out a plan of action. They also involve knowledge of the objects or tools with which the movement or action is to be performed.

There are four types of praxias:

  1. Ideomotor: This is the ability to carry out a simple gesture or movement intentionally.
  2. Ideational: This is the ability to manipulate objects through a sequence of actions. It assumes knowledge of the object, its function, the result of the action and the steps to be taken.
  3. Facial: This is the ability to perform voluntary movements with the parts of the face.
  4. Visoconstructive: This involves making a drawing or figure, planning it, and performing the necessary movements to obtain it.


Language is one of the most complex and fundamental cognitive functions. It involves the ability to operate with sound or written signs, which symbolize objects or ideas. Such signs must conform to the conventions of a linguistic community or people who speak the same language.

There are several processes that are comprised within language:

  • Naming is the ability to name people, objects, or facts.
  • Vocabulary is our knowledge of words and their meaning.
  • Expression is our ability to formulate ideas that make sense, using correct grammatical schemes.
  • Comprehension is our ability to understand language.
  • Discrimination allows us to differentiate and interpret the different contents of language.
  • Repetition is our ability to produce sounds equal to those we’ve heard.
  • Writing involves converting ideas into images, symbols, and characters.
  • Reading refers to the ability to interpret pictures, symbols, and characters and then convert them into speech.
  • Fluency is the ability to produce linguistic content quickly and efficiently.
Lenguaje es una función cognitiva.
Language conforms to social conventions that establish what words and phrases look like in each culture.


Memory is another of the most important cognitive functions. It’s defined as the ability to encode, store and retrieve information contained in learning or experiences.

There are three basic types of memory:

  1. Episodic memory: This has to do with events or situations experienced, with recognizable time and space.
  2. Semantic memory: This refers to knowledge in general.
  3. Procedural memory: This refers to the sequence of actions already learned.

Social cognition

Another cognitive skill is social cognition. This corresponds to the intellectual and emotional processes that allow analyzing, interpreting, remembering and using the information that comes from the social world.

It’s the way in which relationships with oneself and others are mentally processed. It allows us to identify and understand one’s own emotions and those of others. It’s the foundation of both social behavior and empathy.

Visuospatial skills

Visuospatial skills refer to the ability to mentally represent, analyze, and manipulate objects. It allows us, for example, to calculate the distance between two objects. It also allows us to imagine the places from which we are spoken to or to guess what a space will look like after making some modifications.

Take care of your cognitive functions with healthy habits

Cognitive functions are the basis of our activity in the world. These capacities can deteriorate due to various factors, such as aging, illness, substance abuse, or inactivity.

In contrast, cognitive functions are very well maintained when a healthy lifestyle is adopted. Physical activity, a balanced diet, stress reduction, and a stimulating social life are ways to take care of these valuable abilities.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Funes, M. J., & Lupiáñez, J. (2003). La teoría atencional de Posner: una tarea para medir las funciones atencionales de Orientación, Alerta y Control Cognitivo y la interacción entre ellas. Psicothema, 260-266.
  • Gonzato, M., & Godino, J. D. (2010). Aspectos históricos, sociales y educativos de la orientación espacial. UNION. Revista iberoamericana de educación matemática, 23, 45-58.
  • Valdizán, J. R. (2008). Funciones cognitivas y redes neuronales del cerebro social. Revista de neurología, 46(Supl 1), 64-68.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.