How would you describe your psychological skills

Back to overview

Human cognitive abilities

By Elian Schweizer


The following text deals with the topic of human cognitive abilities. A brief overview of the term 'cognition', as well as about the different cognitive abilities. This is followed by a discussion of the effects of the information age on cognition, an interesting point for media IT specialists.

Explanation of terms

Cognition is mental perception. The cognitive abilities of humans describe their ability to perceive signals from the environment and to process them further. The word 'cognitive'derives from the Latin'cognoscere'off what with'to recognize'is to be translated. Cognition happens anytime and anywhere. It is what makes the environment a part of human life and is the interface between the environment and the brain. In the current state of research, the cognitive skills more and more of them mental abilities delimited. The cognitive abilities include, for example, the ability to learn and the ability to abstract. This is discussed in more detail in the next section. Cognition itself can be subdivided into different areas (according to Hayes, 1995):
  • Perception of the environment: through our senses
  • Attention to special happenings: objects of interest
  • Thinking: processing information in the brain
  • Storage of information: memory storage for later recall
  • Assignment of meanings: Mostly through language

Explanation using a simple example:
The man walks through a forest and perceives the environment through his eyes. His attention is drawn to a tree that is striking because of its considerable size. Because he has seldom seen such a tree, he saves the information and may later tell his wife about it.

Types of cognitive skills

Science distinguishes many types of cognitive skills. Here is a short excerpt in order to better understand important cognitive skills. Primarily those aspects that are of interest to media IT specialists were singled out. The different cognitive abilities are interdependent. Due to possible overlaps, a clear delimitation of the individual areas is therefore not possible:

Attention could be described as the preliminary stage of perception. Our environment constantly bombards us with a myriad of information and humans are only able to pay attention to a certain part of it. The brain has to decide which information is relevant and which is not. So there is a preselection. There are a few factors that usually make you more alert. This is particularly relevant when designing a user interface. The color red attracts a lot more attention than the color blue. This has to do with the structure of the eye, among other things. Other factors that should be particularly considered are, for example: movement, loud, high-pitched tones, contrast, symmetry.

Perception is understood to be the conscious absorption of information. This is where the various human sensory organs come into play. Nowadays, visual and auditory perception are primarily used in IT. But there are already projects and visions that also involve the sense of touch, the sense of smell, the sense of balance and even the sense of taste.

The ability to learn determines a person's ability to get used to behavior. It is closely related to memory. In the IT sector, it plays a role above all when a user is supposed to acquire a new working environment or is given a new interface. This can be a three-dimensional touchpad, for example.

The ability to abstract works in two directions. The abstraction, i.e. the reduction to generally valid properties, can be done by humans as well as reversed by them. A graphic artist has to abstract the symbol "empty sheet" for a computer program, for example, since he has only limited drawing possibilities. The user, on the other hand, must recognize this symbol as a blank sheet.

Remember, remember:
When one speaks of memory retention, one generally means the human ability to store information in the memory in order to call it up again at a later point in time. Simple and logical relationships are often easier to remember, which is why the 'Close the window'Function in the top right corner can be mastered much faster than via the menu of a program.

Other cognitive skills:
In addition to the above, there are a number of other cognitive skills. Here, for example, the ability to cognize, which assigns a term to an object, or the ability to draw conclusions, which draws a consequence from given circumstances. There is also the ability to make judgments, which includes the decision-making process, or rationality, which is also called Basis of all thought referred to as.

Cognition in the information age

In order to approach this topic, one must first recognize the difference between our current information age and what was before. In recent years, the amount of information and general knowledge available has increased dramatically. Philosophically one might say that humanity may not know much more, but the individual should know much more. In the information age, these are consistently things that are not very natural and self-explanatory. This is mainly due to the necessary abstraction of the available information caused by the technology. A bad apple is easier to spot than an empty battery. Due to new communication technologies, the possibilities for information transfer / access have increased rapidly. This is particularly relevant for a media IT specialist. Computerization now affects large parts of the population. Over 50% of all North Americans use the Internet. After all, in Germany it is already over 25%. This leads to the fact that in many places already from one Information overflow is spoken. The question arises as to what influences this has had on human cognition. This leads to the problem that changes are very difficult to measure and sometimes take a very long time to develop. The following is a brief summary of the effects on selected cognitive skills.
Perception is closely related to the problem of the overabundance of information. In the information age, especially visual perception has risen sharply. An example of this is the monitor, which has become a major source in information processing. This could lead to a shift from auditory to visual perception.

With the numerous new possibilities of the information age, an increase in the learning effort has gone hand in hand. The short life often leads to a shift towards a short-term or faster understanding.

As already mentioned with learning, knowledge has become short-lived. The rule is increasingly 'Function over content'. This means that you have to remember the functions in more complex systems more often, but the actual content has lost priority. For example, you remember the operation of a program, but not its content.

When it comes to processing information, thinking in and of itself, it is hardest to come to a conclusion because it is one of the most complex cognitive skills. As a result, in addition to the increasingly complex contexts, terms such as systems thinking were also coined. This requires a lot more flexibility and the ability to think.


The human cognitive abilities play a decisive role for the media computer scientist in the design of programs and user interfaces. Skillful use of knowledge in this area leads to more ergonomic and optimal results. Disregard can make even a good content program useless. Visual perception in particular, as well as the ability to learn and abstract, are important and should be taken into account in every design. Therefore there is also a lot of research in this area and what was considered in the last lecture Fizz Law deals with the criteria of attention, learning ability and perception.


Hayes, Nicky (1995): Cognitive processes - an introduction, in: Gerstenmaier 1995, p.11-40)

Ballstaedt, Steffen Peter: Cognition and perception in the information and knowledge society