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Cognitive Processing: Functions, Networks, and Impact on Daily Life
Cognitive Research

Cognitive Processing: Functions, Networks, and Impact on Daily Life

Published: 07/05/2024

Written by: Creyos

Cognitive processes—the intricate mental functions that enable us to perceive, reason, remember, and learn—are fundamental to brain health and mental wellbeing.

These processes are central to how we interact with the world, solve problems, make decisions, and navigate the complexities of daily life. And cognition changes throughout a person’s life, such as during old age. 

According to one study, up to 70% of aging individuals experience decline in processes that may affect processing speed and memory, as well as impact their quality of life and independence. Additionally, it’s estimated that over one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness, which can in some cases lead to cognitive impairments.

By understanding cognitive processes, healthcare providers can identify when a patient experiences changes in function that fall outside of normal expectations (e.g. age-related cognitive decline) and may be early indicators of cognitive decline, disorders, or mental health issues. 

Read on to learn about the components of cognitive processes, examples, and how they impact daily life. Use this article to help guide conversations with patients as you measure cognition.

What is Cognitive Processing?

Cognitive processing relates to the mental activities associated with thinking, learning, memory, processing speed, and executive function.

Here are some important components of cognition:

  • Attention
  • Perception
  • Reasoning
  • Emotion
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Retrieval
  • Utilization of information

Cognitive processing speed, which crucially affects how quickly we can complete cognitive tasks, tends to change over a person's life with evidence suggesting a natural decline with age. However, individuals who engage in certain interventions (such as exercise, socializing, or nutrition) may be able to slow cognitive decline in some preventable cases.

A ton of media suggests interventions for cognitive decline. How can you be sure about the best option?

Creyos conducted extensive research to understand whether “brain training” improves cognitive processes. Want to hear the results?

Does Brain Training Really Work?


To detect and identify potential decline in cognitive processing, healthcare professionals can use cognitive assessments as valuable tools within their clinical practice. These assessments are commonly used to: 

  • Capture a baseline of an individual’s cognitive abilities
  • Track longitudinal cognitive performance data
  • Pinpoint changes in particular cognitive functions
  • Screen for cognitive impairment
  • Support early detection and timely intervention
  • Identify specific patterns of cognitive impairment to support diagnosis
  • Assess the severity of disorders
  • Monitor disease progression

There are many benefits to healthcare providers capturing a baseline of a patient’s cognitive abilities (such as memory, recall, attention span, problem-solving skills, and processing speed).

Conducting routine cognitive assessments lets a healthcare provider identify important changes quickly, detect potential MCI earlier, and develop personalized care strategies that can potentially slow the progression of cognitive decline and improve an individual's quality of life.

What’s the Connection Between Cognitive Processes and Cognitive Skills?

Cognitive processing is the underlying mechanism for acquiring, refining, and using cognitive skills. For example, when an individual engages in a problem-solving task, cognitive processing takes place by enabling them to perceive information, apply reasoning, and retrieve relevant knowledge from memory.

Our cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, are also linked to areas of the brain. The activation of these various brain regions have been observed during brain imaging research.

Each cognitive function is not represented by a separate part of the brain. Instead, brain regions work together in tremendously overlapping and complicated ways to produce these cognitive processes.
Prof. Adrian Owen Neuroscientist Creyos Health


In a landmark study published in Neuron, it was found that performance on the Creyos cognitive battery tends to cluster into three cognitive domains—reasoning, short-term memory, and verbal ability—and each domain recruited distinct (but interconnected) brain networks. 

  • Reasoning skills help us solve problems and make decisions
  • Short-term memory allows us to retain and process information over short periods
  • Verbal ability enables us to understand and use language effectively

In addition to these three domains, attention or concentration enables us to sustain focus on specific tasks.

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Types of Cognitive Processes

Let’s examine the specific brain regions involved in cognitive processes. 

Understanding these neural pathways is essential for accurately assessing and treating disorders related to cognitive function. We will explore the activation patterns within the brain that correspond to certain cognitive processes assessed by different cognitive tasks, providing a clearer picture of the biological underpinnings of cognition.


Attention is the gatekeeper of our cognitive processes, determining what information we focus on and what we ignore. It involves a complex network of brain regions: the dorsolateral region of the right prefrontal cortex, the left inferior frontal gyrus, and the dorsal striatum, according to research compiled in the Brain Regions Guide

Coupled with attention, response inhibition is a crucial executive function that enables us to suppress irrelevant stimuli or behaviors. The prefrontal cortex, the left inferior frontal gyrus, and the dorsal striatum largely manage this mechanism. 

Attention and response inhibition can be tested using Creyos' Double Trouble test, which requires sustained focused attention. 


Reasoning is a complex cognitive function that encompasses several sub-processes, including spatial processing, planning, and problem-solving. Spatial processing is deeply connected to the frontoparietal network, particularly the intraparietal sulcus of both hemispheres. 

Visuospatial processing can be tested using Creyos' Polygons task, which requires patients to interpret visual information and detect subtle differences between shapes. 

Planning is another facet of reasoning. Early imaging studies found that the mid-dorsolateral frontal cortex was activated in various versions of the Spatial Planning task. The caudate nucleus and the thalamus were involved only in more difficult puzzles. Multiple brain regions are engaged in problem-solving, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), according to a systematic review of the subject. 


Memory is a multifaceted cognitive function that encompasses several types, each relying on distinct brain regions. Working memory, for instance, engages the prefrontal, premotor, and posterior parietal cortex. The mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, in particular, plays a role in working memory regardless of whether or not there is a spatial component, as outlined by Owen et al

Working memory can be tested using Creyos' Monkey Ladder test, which requires storing numbers and their locations and then translating that memory into a series of movements in space.

Episodic memory primarily activates the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventral and anterior left prefrontal cortex regions. It can be assessed using the Paired Associates task, which asks patients to remember which objects they previously saw along with the locations in which they were seen.

Spatial short-term memory involves the right mid-ventrolateral area and the parieto-occipital regions. Visuospatial working memory involves the prefrontal cortex, the mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the premotor cortex, and the posterior parietal cortex. 

Verbal Ability

Verbal reasoning and language processing primarily activate the frontal operculum, the posterior temporal lobe, the superior parietal lobe, the dorsal prefrontal cortex, and the ventral prefrontal cortex. 

The Grammatical Reasoning test requires individuals to judge the accuracy of the relationship between a statement and an object on the screen, primarily assessing verbal reasoning ability.

Verbal short-term memory, on the other hand, engages primarily the right hemisphere of the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Digit Span, a straightforward memorization task, can test these cognitive processes. 

Other Cognitive Processes

Other cognitive processes like learning, executive function, and creativity also activate various parts of the brain. When we learn something new, our brain activates the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

Executive function, a set of cognitive skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control, primarily involves the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates thoughts and actions.

Creativity, often considered the pinnacle of cognitive functions, lights up the brain's default mode network (DMN), which includes areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the temporo-parietal junction. This network is most active when we're engaged in tasks involving imagination, such as daydreaming or brainstorming, suggesting that creativity arises from a complex interplay of multiple cognitive processes and brain regions. Research supports the role of the DMN in creative thinking and complex problem-solving.

Examples of Cognitive Processes

To better understand the processes involved, let’s consider some practical examples. 

Suppose an individual has visited a new city and is trying to remember the route from their hotel to a popular tourist spot. Here, spatial memory and sensory input come into play, allowing them to recall the directions.

Similarly, several cognitive processes are at work when reading a novel. For instance: 

  • Attention helps you focus on the text
  • Working memory enables you to remember the characters and plot
  • Reasoning allows you to understand the storyline and anticipate plot twists

Dealing with a traumatic event or daily stressors also involves multiple cognitive functions:

  • Cognitive reframing helps individuals challenge negative thought patterns
  • Memory processing plays a role in reviewing events
  • Attention regulation aids in maintaining focus during stressful situations
  • Problem-solving skills are key for identifying stressors and developing effective solutions

Measuring Changes in Cognitive Function

Advancements in cognitive psychology and healthcare technology have made it possible to measure changes in cognitive function. Creyos, a cognitive healthcare solution, enables healthcare providers to assess changes in cognitive performance and address any concerns patients might have when cognitive changes impact their everyday lives.

Creyos streamlines care with comprehensive, easy-to-administer assessments for healthcare providers and researchers. This allows clinicians to:

  • Generate critical insights
  • Personalize baseline assessments to assess specific components of cognition
  • Compare results to normative databases to understand how patients are performing relative to peers
  • Facilitate proactive and personalized care by tracking cognitive changes
  • Detect early warning signs of cognitive decline
  • Enhance patient communication through simple reporting
  • Monitor brain health effectively
  • Individualize treatment plans
  • Support optimal patient outcomes in the face of cognitive challenges

For instance, determining the right time to return to work is critical when an individual sustains an injury, especially one potentially affecting cognitive function:

An occupational therapist with Assess Group uses a range of Creyos Health cognitive tests to evaluate the patient's speed and accuracy of cognitive processing, their ability to retain and manipulate information, and their capacity for complex problem-solving. These tasks were designed to simulate work-related cognitive demands, providing a realistic gauge of the patient's readiness to resume professional duties.

Final Thoughts: Keeping Cognition Top of Mind in Healthcare

Understanding cognitive processes is key for healthcare providers as it directly influences patient care and outcomes. These processes enable us to interpret complex information, adjust to new or changing environments, and execute sophisticated tasks. Moreover, they are integral to our capacity to learn, communicate effectively, and make informed decisions.

Healthcare professionals benefit from a deep understanding of cognitive operations—they can connect the information from precise cognitive assessments back to these skills and use this knowledge in the development of targeted interventions. 

Creyos offers a comprehensive suite of tools for healthcare providers to:

  • Evaluate distinct cognitive processes
  • Conduct detailed cognitive assessments
  • Empower healthcare professionals and patients with the knowledge to understand, monitor, and manage cognitive functions efficiently

Want to learn more? Read about the Creyos suite of cognitive tasks

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