The 411 on Cognitive Skills: What They Are, How They’re Trained, and How Strong Skills Make Learning Easier with Dr. Amy Moore and Sandy Zamalis

About this Episode

On this episode, Dr. Amy and Sandy dig into cognitive skills. Learn what they are, how each of the major brain skills contributes to learning, andwhy someone—whether a child, teen, adult, or senior—might struggle if even one skill is holding them back from their full learning potential.Tune in to hear a sample demonstration from cognitive skills training and find out why accommodations and tutoring may not be helping your student, as well as which type of intervention might best address the challenges your child is facing. Join us for this high-level overview of cognitive skills before we tackle individual brain skills in future episodes.

About Dr. Amy Moore

Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist at LearningRx in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognitive training and assessment for neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, brain injury, learning disabilities and age-related cognitive decline. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals and presented at conferences around the country. She has been a child development specialist, education administrator, and teacher of teachers with a PhD in psychology and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Dr. Amy has been working with struggling learners for 25+ years in public, private, and government organizations, so she knows a little about thinking and learning. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a TEDx Speaker, host of the Brainy Moms podcast, a licensed pastor, and a board-certified Christian counselor. Dr. Amy is married to Jeff Moore, a retired Air Force fighter pilot now working as a surgical nurse. They have three incredible sons (ages 19, 23, and 25) and a very mischievous but soft Siberian cat. Originally from South Carolina, Dr. Amy has called Colorado home since 2006.

Watch her TEDx talk, Lessons Learned from Training 101,000 Brains
Read her research:

About Sandy Zamalis

Sandy is a brainy mom of 2 who loves co-hosting our show! She’s a Board Certified Cognitive Specialist and the owner of LearningRx Staunton-Harrisonburg in VA where she spends her days improving the lives of struggling students through brain training. Her diverse background includes being a USA Swimming Coach, probation officer, homeschooling moms, and small business owner in 3-D printing and scanning. Sandy has been married for 26 years and is her passion is helping families understand learning challenges so that children can find success and confidence.

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Read the transcript for this episode:

DR. AMY:  Hi, smart moms and dads, welcome to a special episode of The Brainy Moms Podcast. I’m Dr. Amy Moore, and I am here with Sandy Zamalis. And Sandy and I are going to talk today about cognitive skills. And the reason that we’re going to talk about cognitive skills is because this is what Sandy and I do all day, every day in our day jobs. We work with cognitive skills. We work with neuroplasticity. And we’re passionate about it, but we want to share our work with you. And we want to talk about cognitive skills because they are so important.

SANDY: Absolutely. You and I could talk about this for hours on end, but we’re going to try to keep this short and sweet for our listeners so that we can give them the highlights. So let’s start with what the heck are cognitive skills and why are they important?

DR. AMY: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. So the word cognition means thinking. And so cognitive skills then could be translated to thinking skills. And so they are the skills that the brain uses all day every day for thinking and learning. So the most commonly known general categories of cognitive skills are things like memory—working memory and long-term memory; attention; processing speed—the speed in which we’re able to process incoming information; reasoning skills; our logic skills; auditory processing, which is how we process language; visual processing, which is our ability to manipulate what we see. So visualization-type skills, spatial sense. And then did I say attention?

SANDY: I don’t, I think we skipped attention.

DR. AMY: And attention, right? And so there are multiple types of attention and I think we’re going to do a special episode just on attention skills. And so those are the basic categories of cognitive skills. It’s interesting. There’s a group of scientists, Cattell, Horn and Carroll, who created the CHC theory, Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory of cognition. And they’ve actually identified more than 90 cognitive skills.

SANDY: Ninety, that’s a lot.

DR. AMY: Right. More than 90. And some are broad and some are narrow, but they all seem to fall in those, you know, general skills that I’ve just identified. And so why are they important? Well, if we don’t have strong cognitive skills, then we’re going to struggle with thinking and learning.

SANDY: What does that look like, for example, in terms of like a struggle with thinking and learning? Because what if you have, you know, a student or a child who’s doing really, really well, but they just have one little hiccup or issue that you’re seeing, like, what does that look like if there’s an issue there?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so I’d love to do a demonstration. So, you know, you and I, when we talk to parents about what it is that we do, we do a demonstration so that they can see and feel, you know, what the intersection of all of these cognitive skills looks like. Right? So, can I put you on the spot?

SANDY: Yes. All right. I’ll see how I do.

DR. AMY: Okay. So, in just a second, I’m going to ask you to spell the last name of the 16th president backwards. Now, the 16th president is the one who gave the Gettysburg Address, right? There’s my tip for you. All right. So, I’m going to ask you to do it. You can’t use paper or pencil, right? You just have to use your brain.

All right. But I’m only going to give you 10 seconds to do it. Ready? Go.

SANDY: N L O C N I L. Lincoln.

DR. AMY: Lincoln. You were fast! I had to like figure it out, like oh shoot, do I remember who the 16th president was? Exactly! So let’s talk about that. Alright, so what skills did Sandy have to use? What cognitive skills did Sandy have to use to complete that task? Well, the first thing she had to do is remember who the 16th president was. That’s long-term memory. Now imagine if she had not been able to remember who the 16th president was. She would not have been able to do that task at all. She couldn’t even get started. All right, but Sandy remembered it. All right. So she engaged her long term memory, but then she had to decide on a strategy for solving this problem. So that was reasoning. She had to engage her reasoning skills to determine the strategy. Now, most people would project the word Lincoln either in the air or just in their minds, right? Which did you do, Sandy?

SANDY: In my mind.

DR. AMY: Okay. So that is visual processing, right? So you project this imaginary image in your mind or in the air to help you solve the problem. All right, well, the next thing that Sandy did is she started spelling the word, but she had to spell it backwards. So she had to manipulate the sounds in the name Lincoln. That’s auditory processing, right? So her ability to manipulate sounds in the language, in our language. But she had to remember where she was in the word, because she was going backwards, right? So that was working memory, right? She had to engage her working memory, which is your ability to work on information, right, while holding something in your mind. And so she was manipulating those sounds. So about halfway through that word, she might have gotten frustrated. Sandy didn’t, but a lot of people would, so you have to really engage your attention skills, right, in order to get through. Well, I only told her she had 10 seconds. She only had 10 seconds to solve that problem, so she had to work fast. So that’s processing speed, the speed in which she could process that information and then produce the answer. She had to engage her processing speed. Did I get them all?

SANDY: Yes, you got them all right.

DR. AMY: So long-term memory, working memory, attention, visual processing, auditory processing and reasoning. And so she used all of those skills in that 10-second task. And so if we break that down and say, what if she had had a weakness in some of those cognitive skills? Well, we already said what would happen if your long-term memory was bad. You wouldn’t have been able to solve it at all. What if your processing speed was kind of deficient? What would have happened?

SANDY: Oh, I probably would have forgot the question. It would have caused my working memory to drop.

DR. AMY: Yeah, absolutely. Or you wouldn’t have been able to finish it in the time that I allotted, right? What if your visual processing skills weren’t strong?

SANDY: Oh, I would probably have to write it. Well, you told me I couldn’t write it down, but I would have freaked me out. I would have had to like, try to like, use my finger or something to help me.

DR. AMY: Right. So if Sandy had not been able to visualize the word Lincoln because her visual processing skills were weak, she would have really struggled because I wouldn’t let her use a pen or pencil, right, for that task. All right. What if your auditory processing skills had been weak?

SANDY: Oh, that would have been really tricky. In fact, I was like working it by syllable. Ling, kun. So I was trying to chunk it so that I could manage that a little easier. And if I couldn’t even figure out the syllables in the word to let alone the sounds that with, with it, because there’s a hidden L in there.

DR. AMY: Right. Absolutely. So, so most people don’t realize that the key to reading and spelling are strong auditory processing skills. Right. We think reading is visual. Okay. Well, reading is visual, but the foundation for strong reading is your ability to manipulate sounds and their associated letters in the English language. And that’s auditory processing. Okay. What if you had weak reasoning skills?

SANDY: Oh, I wouldn’t even know, wouldn’t have known how to start. I probably would have got stuck right there.

DR. AMY: Right, because you had to decide on a strategy. And then, if you had had weak attention skills, what might have happened?

SANDY: I probably would have had to ask for the question again.

DR. AMY: Yeah, so either she wouldn’t have caught it the first time, right, because she didn’t attend to my instructions, or sometimes that frustration kicks in when something’s hard. Right? And then you lose your ability to pay attention. And so she might have just given up, right? Lost motivation or given up because she just couldn’t remember where she was. And that was, that was the last skill, right? If your working memory was weak, then you could have, you would have lost track of where you were in the word. So you can see then from that really simple demonstration how our cognitive skills interact and work together to help us think or learn, and that if we have a weakness and even just one of those cognitive skills, it can create a struggle. And most people have at least one weak cognitive skill, but kids who are struggling in school usually have two or three week cognitive skills.

SANDY: How do we address that? What is the current, you know, paradigm with how we look at cognitive skills, let’s say, in a school setting?

DR. AMY: Yeah, so let’s say you have a child with weak attention skills, right? They’ve typically got a diagnosis or a suspicion of ADHD because they can’t focus, or they can’t pay attention. So then how does the school address weak attention skills? We’re going to get into that when we talk about, when we do an episode specifically on attention. But typically they’ll accommodate that. So they’ll do things like, you know, preferential seating, where they put the child at the, you know, front of the class so that they’re not distracted by other things. Or they’ll give the child extra time. Extra time to complete that, and we’ll talk about motivation and what that does to motivation. So schools have great intentions, right, when they identify that a child might be struggling. But they don’t always know, except for attention, they don’t always know why they’re struggling. And so they just, they will accommodate it, right, to just help support that child. The problem with supporting it, while, again, a great intention, is that it’s not doing anything to remediate it. And so, we have to actually use a targeted intervention to remediate weak cognitive skills. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not every child who has a weak cognitive skill needs an intense intervention, right? Some kids are going to respond to some fun games, right, or strategies to just improve those cognitive skills a little bit. But when you’re seeing your child truly struggling, and if there’s a chance that two or three of those cognitive skills are weak and creating that struggle, then we need to go in and do an intervention. And so for us, what you and I do all day every day, is we strengthen those cognitive skills through cognitive skills training.

SANDY:  And that’s the important, I think, thing that we love to talk about the most is that these are skills. I think there’s, you know, in the past, there’s been sort of this paradigm that the brain is the brain and there’s nothing you can do to change it. So let’s talk about that a little bit. How do you change a skill? What do you need to do?

DR. AMY: Yeah, well, first of all, you know, that idea that we’re stuck with the brain as is, right, has kind of perpetuated the frustration of, okay, well, there’s nothing I can do about it, therefore, let’s just make accommodations. But the idea that we can change the brain through targeted experience, that’s neuroplasticity. And we know that most people have heard of that word. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change through experience and it’s proven. Neuroplasticity is proven. We can image changes in the brain from different types of interventions, right? We can use functional MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, to see these changes. And so not just in cognitive training, but in all aspects, right, like the brain can change throughout your lifetime.

SANDY: Throughout your lifespan.

DR. AMY: Yes. So if we harness that phenomenon, right, the brain’s ability to change, then we can create targeted experiences to help change the brain. And so we do that by using very intense, very complex, targeted, carefully selected, human-delivered activities, mental activities. They’re fun. They feel like games, even though they’re hard, right, to drill down on those weak cognitive skills and hope to strengthen them.

SANDY: Why is that intensity so important? Cause we talk, you and I talk about that all the time, but the intensity is really kind of a key piece of it, as well as like that repetitive structure and that one-to-one relationship as you’re working on a skill. So let’s talk about intensity. Why is that so important to build a cognitive skill?

DR. AMY: Yeah. So that. Repeated exposure is really what drives neuroplasticity. And so we can’t just dabble in activities here and there and expect to see change. And so, for our neurons to grow or to regenerate or to be generated in the first place, we need our brains to release a protein called BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor. That’s like Miracle-Gro for the brain. And so that’s only released through intensity. Right, so we know it’s released during physical exercise, so like intense aerobic activity releases BDNF. The hypothesis also is that intense cognitive activity will release BDNF. And so that’s what you need in order to drive neuroplasticity, to drive those changes in the brains. So that intensity is critical to that process.

SANDY: Now, you also mentioned that human face to face, one-on-one kind of interaction for training. There’s lots of brain apps out there and things that you can do. What’s the difference? Why would one be more beneficial than the other?

DR. AMY: I love that question. In fact, it’s one of my favorite questions to answer and there are multiple reasons. So first, let me start with … there’s so much research that says that the number one predictor of success from an intervention is the relationship with the person who’s delivering the intervention. So most of that research is based in therapy, right? So you’re in a mental health therapy situation, you know, for depression or anxiety, and so the number one predictor of the success of that therapy is the relationship with the therapist. And so if we apply that to the cognitive training environment, then the number one predictor of success is going to be your relationship with a cognitive trainer, right, that’s delivering that. And so, you know, we think that some of those reasons are motivation, right? So if you’re if you’re playing a brain game on your laptop and you get frustrated when that game gets hard, what are you going to do?

SANDY: Turn it off.

DR. AMY: Yeah, you’re going to shut the laptop. You’re done. If you get frustrated with the intensity or difficulty of a cognitive training activity as you’re sitting across the table from a cognitive trainer, you don’t have the option of turning the trainer off. Right? And so that trainer can read those cues that trainer can recognize when you are getting frustrated and they can adapt the exercise, right? They can pull back a little bit, lower the intensity, let you experience some success, and then push you some more. And we do high fives, which release dopamine, right? And dopamine increases motivation. And we know that, especially kids with ADHD, and adults too, they really struggle with dopamine and they need dopamine for motivation. And so those high fives and that verbal encouragement is critical. So, some fireworks on a screen that’s not going to do it. That’s not going to do it when you’re struggling with how difficult it is. But if we look at social cognitive theory, right, most people have heard of self-efficacy and self-efficacy is that belief in your ability to accomplish something. And so if we look at self-efficacy theory, which comes from social cognitive theory, Albert Bandura, I don’t want to get in the weeds, but there are four ways to increase someone’s self-efficacy. And one is through providing mastery experiences. And so cognitive training, one that’s designed specifically for that person, is going to give them the ability to master each task. And we have over 100 different training tasks, and those training tasks have 10 to 12 different levels. So we have 1000 different ways that you and I use to train the brain. Right? And so those tasks are trained to mastery. So that’s one way that cognitive training with a human being increases self-efficacy. Another is verbal persuasion. Well, you don’t get that verbal persuasion from a computer screen or a phone app, right? You’re only going to get that from a human who’s sitting across the table from you going, “You can do this.” Right? “You got it. Hey, I saw you succeed 10 minutes ago on this task. I know that you can apply those same principles to this one and accomplish that.” Another way is through modeling. And so we demonstrate what that looks like first. Right? “Hey, here’s how you’re going to solve this task. Here are the cards that you need to use, right? Here’s what I expect from you,” right? You’re going to demonstrate what it looks like so that then they’re able, the child is able then to mimic the process, right? So, and then finally, I already touched on it a little bit, but it’s that ability to recognize physical cues, right, and master those. Right? So like you see sweating and heart rate and frustration and all those things that happen under duress or stress. Right? And so it’s then the ability of the cognitive trainer to go, “Hey, I see that you’re getting frustrated, but you can do this. Let me help you. Hey, let’s pull back, solve a easier one.” Right? “And then I’m going to push you again.” Right? So you just are able to adjust and adapt right to that individual child.

SANDY: That’s really different from teaching, right? So we’re really clarifying like two very different approaches to helping a student or a child when they’re struggling or an adult as well. It really kind of laid out really well, that training model. I like to think of it as like that personal trainer at the gym. That’s like trying to help you get, you know, strong muscles, strong abs, or build endurance, versus just going and learning about a particular style of exercise from someone who’s teaching you something, right? Like, so really they’re two different hats. One of the questions we get all the time is why don’t they do any kind of cognitive training in schools? And I think it’s because the two different hats that people wear and it takes time, which we haven’t really addressed. How long does it take to build a cognitive skill and to really, you know, strengthen it? I know it probably varies, but it’s not something that happens in a day, right?

DR. AMY: Yeah. And so the answer is going to be, “It depends.” And so I know people hate that answer. But it truly does depend on the individual. And so, with children, it depends on if we’re helping develop the skill initially, or if we’re helping remediate a deficient skill. And so if we’re helping develop that skill initially, like if we’re doing an early intervention program that includes early reading, right, with a 5-year-old, then those are new skills that we’re helping to develop. And so that’s going to take a little bit longer. If we’re just trying to strengthen a skill, right, so the foundation has already been laid, right? The child can pay attention, but not as well as they need to be able to, to succeed in the classroom, right? Or their visual processing skills, you know, they’re okay. Maybe in the 30th percentile, right? So there’s some foundation there and we just need to build on it. So that’s going to take less time. But let’s say we’re working with someone who has a traumatic brain injury, right? Or a concussion where there’s damage. That’s going to take longer typically, right? Because we’ve got to work around the damaged part of the brain. Because in many of those cases, we can’t just remediate that section, right? We’re going to have to create new neural pathways through those experiences and so that’s going to take longer. And then with older adults, right? Who maybe have begun to experience some pathology, right? Like they’re experiencing early Alzheimer’s or dementia or something like that. They’re probably going to need that type of intervention for the rest of their lives because you’re fighting against that disease, right? So that’s the answer. It depends. I mean, the minimum time, I think that you and I work with someone, you know, is 12 weeks, but typically, you know, we see probably 24 weeks is the sweet spot. But then there are kids that are going to need 32 weeks, 36 weeks. It’s just gonna really gonna depend.

SANDY: Right depend and depend on how many skills are weak right like if there’s only one or two that’s not going to take as long versus if you know we’ve got like you said to build the whole new foundation across the board and that’s definitely going to take longer. I guess my next question that I want you to address is what happens if you don’t do anything? What happens to skill in the brain if we don’t address it at all?

DR. AMY: Yeah. I, I like that question too, Sandy. so we created cognitive profiles of several thousand kids with reading struggles or dyslexia. And so what we saw was, in the absence of an intervention, those skills continued to weaken over time. So it isn’t that they just stay in one place. It’s that as school gets harder, as you get older and you’re having to juggle more, those skills weaken. So the struggle becomes even harder. And so that was a cross sectional study of thousands of kids. Obviously, you know, it wasn’t a longitudinal study of each child, but to take a snapshot like that of a very large sample, really shows us that early intervention is important.

SANDY: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I’m really excited about this series. I think we, we intended to do this series as kind of an intro into cognitive skills, and we’re really going to dig down on each skill individually that we talked about today, those core seven skills. Is there anything you wanted to say about cognitive skills in general that we didn’t get to say in this episode? ‘Cause we’re going to dig down on some things like attention and working memory at another time, but what do you want to kind of wrap us up with?

DR. AMY: Yeah. So I think one of the things that we didn’t talk about was the difference between tutoring and cognitive skills training, because we typically as parents see our child struggle and we say, “Oh, I think they need a tutor.” And that might be true in many instances, right? Like, so let’s say you’re in a higher-level math class, algebra two or calculus. you know, or you’re struggling in chemistry or biology in high school, a tutor is probably going to be a great choice, right? You’re just seeing a struggle in one particular class because your child is struggling with those particular concepts, right? You’re not seeing a struggle across the board. And I think that’s where you see the red flag. When your child is struggling in multiple classes, in multiple areas, then it’s probably because cognitive skills that are weak are impacting their ability to learn in all areas or many areas, not just in that one particular class. And so I think that it’s really important for parents to be able to recognize that, “Hey, there is something else that might be happening here besides a struggle to capture this particular piece of information or this particular subject.” So that would be where I would say, “Hey, maybe you want to explore the possibility of cognitive skills being the underlying issue and maybe cognitive skills training as being a potential intervention.” So you could then go to Sandy or to someone like Sandy, you know, who runs cognitive training centers across the world and you can find those how?


DR. AMY: Yep. There’s a section at the very top right of the website that says, “find a location or find a center.” Or you can call 1-866-BRAIN-01, which is the central phone number, and they can help you find a center. And interestingly, if you don’t live near a cognitive training center, a LearningRx center, you can get it over Zoom. And so we can reach anyone in the world. But we are in 43 countries. And we’ve been doing this since the 1980s. This is not new. That’s the cool part, right? Like we have lots and lots of peer-reviewed research published in medical journals. In fact, that’s my job, as the director of research for LearningRx, that validates what center owners like Sandy do all day every day.

SANDY: Amy, thanks for this high-level view of cognitive skills and how they impact learning. Listeners, we hope you join us. Like I said, we’re going to dig down into each of those skills as extra podcasts that you can listen to while we do our regularly scheduled programming and talking to professionals that can help you be the best for any mom that you can be. So we hope you’ll come back and listen more as we continue on this journey on cognitive skills and how to help your child.

DR. AMY: Absolutely. So that’s all the smart stuff we have for them today. Right, Sandy?

SANDY: That’s right. Have a great day.