Complex cognition involves decision-making, planning, and creativity. It impacts our ability to adapt and thrive in the world.
A busy parent plans meals for the week, finishes a work project, and helps a child with math homework. A college student studies for a final and decides which classes to take next semester. A manager trains a new employee, handles a client complaint, and finishes the department budget requests. In all of these scenarios, complex cognition is at play.
Complex Cognition reflects our ability to deal with complicated situations and make decisions based on the bigger picture. It involves problem-solving, creativity, and adapting to change. It’s one of the subcategories measured in the Mental Health Million MHQ (Mental Health Quotient).
If you have a healthy complex cognition, you can likely do the following:
- Adapt when faced with a change to routine
- Come up with new ideas and find solutions to problems
- Prioritize, plan, and organize tasks and activities
- Take calculated risks when making decisions.
Someone having difficulty with complex cognition may do the following:
- Struggle with making sense of the world
- Have difficulty making basic decisions
- Take risks that don’t fit in with the bigger picture
Causes of Low Complex Cognition
There can be multiple causes of poor complex cognition. Someone might be struggling with an underlying mental health issue which has an impact on their thinking. Alternatively someone may have experienced a brain injury or be experiencing side effects of medication. Some underlying genetic conditions can also affect complex cognition. For aging adults, complex cognition can also decrease over time.
If you have a particularly low complex cognition score on the MHQ (0 or below), you should consider seeking professional advice to address any issues, and rule out any underlying conditions. If you need help finding local services, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) if you’re in the U.S.
Can I Increase My Complex Cognition?
There are some ways you may be able to improve your complex cognition. If there is an underlying or external cause that’s impacting your cognition, then addressing that can help remedy the problem. For example, sometimes people with emotional difficulties (e.g. depression) or high levels of stress can have trouble with decision making and planning. Active episodes of psychosis or mania can also affect thinking processes. Taking care of your emotional health in turn helps with cognition.
Sometimes addressing physical disease is key. For example, there are some medications that can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease and help preserve cognitive skills longer. Or, if someone has experienced a brain injury, they can develop new ways of dealing with memory challenges or problem solving over time.
But while medication can help the brain, it can also be the problem, leading to side effects that impact cognition. Therefore the important thing is to talk to your medical team for help identifying and addressing the best way forward for your personal situation.
If you have a positive MHQ complex cognition score, there are always ways you can challenge yourself further and protect your brain over time. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends taking care of your physical health, keeping your mind active through learning new knowledge and skills, and staying socially connected. For example, activities such as volunteering, taking up a hobby, or taking a class can help build up a “cognitive reserve,” according to the NIA. This can help the brain adjust to effects of aging. There’s even some evidence that cognitive skills can be actively taught to elderly patients.
Activities like mindfulness and meditation can also help lower stress, which in turn helps improve cognition. Activities that combine mindfulness and movement, such as yoga or tai chi can help improve brain function over time. Harvard Health notes that tai chi can slow dementia for some patients and improve brain function for those with no previous issues as well. In a review of 20 studies on tai chi and cognition, tai chi was shown to improve executive function—in particular the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions—even in people without any previous decline in their cognitive abilities.
Complex cognition impacts many areas of our lives. It’s therefore helpful to understand why it’s important, how to protect it, and why it’s important to get help if you need it.