At its simplest, the term cognitive function refers to any of the activities that take place within the brain that result in the acquisition of knowledge or information. Elements of reasoning, attention, memory, and language all play a role in successful cognitive functioning; delays in any of these areas can inhibit overall cognitive function and, as a result, the level of knowledge or information one acquires. Four basic cognitive functions are attention, working memory, secondary memory, and executive functioning.
Attention is vital to gaining knowledge; when a person is able to focus on a given task, they are able to learn it and complete it more effectively. By developing attention skills, one is able to complete tasks even in the face of various distractions, or prevent outside stimuli from inhibiting one’s ability to learn information or perform. Working memory, or short-term memory, is used to recall information in a very limited amount of time. Whether it is remembering a phone number or checking off a mental list of things to gather before leaving home in the morning, working memory is constantly being used as a basic cognitive process. Secondary memory, or long-term memory, is vital to acquiring knowledge. When something is repeated enough, it moves from working memory to secondary memory; when one repeats a phone number often enough, for example, it is committed to memory. By developing both short-term and long-term memory skills, one is able to more easily acquire knowledge. Finally, one of the most complex cognitive functions is that of executive functioning. When individuals are placed in new situations, they are required to draw upon past experiences and existing knowledge in order to respond appropriately. To do this efficiently, one needs to build upon working memory and secondary memory, pay attention to one’s surroundings, and use critical thinking and reasoning skills to determine the best course of action. As such, executive functioning is representative of complex cognitive functions and demonstrates significant adaptability and development.