Guest Blog: Cognition … what’s it all about?

Improving Cognitive PerformanceIn this guest blog post on BenLinders.com Andrew Mawson from Advanced Workplace Associates talks about their ongoing research on cognition. The aim of that research is to provide guidelines that help knowledge workers do the right things to maximise their cognitive performance.

Cognition is just a scientific term for the functioning of the brain. Until recently measuring the effectiveness of the brain 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 performance of different parts of the brain.

There are many different functions of the brain which are known as ‘domains’ but there are 5 of these domains that seem to be most important and which can be measured using software.

Five Key Cognitive Domains

The primary domains 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.
  • Psychomotor 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 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 cognition and 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 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 can lead to potential confusion. ‘Was that guy in the same meeting as you and I’?

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

You can probably see that depending on your role, different domains have a greater significance to your 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 ‘Psychomotor 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.

You can see pretty quickly that in a world where the brains of your people are your key tools in generating value that the effectiveness of these domains matter enormously.

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

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

Andrew Mawson is the owner and founder of Advanced Workplace Associates. He eats, sleeps and breathes all things workplace; you can connect with Andrew at LinkedIn.

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