Cognitive Capabilities and Limitations

Cognitive Capabilities and Limitations


Cognitive capabilities, also called cognitive capacities or abilities, are brain-based skills needed in acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning. The American Psychological Association defines cognitive ability as “the skills involved in performing the tasks associated with perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness reasoning, judgment, intuition and language.


This article introduces a collection SKYbrary articles that address related subjects that often arise in the domain of aviation human factors. They also help explain the basics of human cognitive capabilities and limitations.

Subject matter experts frequently analyse errors in aviation according to common principles for recognising unconscious cognitive biases, situational awareness, vigilance, attention, preoccupation, information processing, decision making and memory. Behaviours of air traffic controllers and flight crews that have been investigated after accidents and serious incidents, and leessons from their experiences, are cited here as examples but the principles also apply to other aviation professions.

Key Points

Here are a few key points made in the articles listed under Further Reading:

  • In aviation, the team represents a distributed cognitive system in which each member may affect the collective decision-making process. The leader takes a specific role in the process by assuming the responsibility for the collective decision on behalf of the team, regardless of the situation or event.
  • Knowing how human information processing capabilities can be limited is important in designing and delegating tasks. Ideally, each task design will help people avoid misunderstanding information, incorrectly handling information, forgetting information and reacting inappropriately to information.
  • Maintaining situational awareness is a continuous process requiring mental effort. This process will become vulnerable to threats and errors during periods of high workload in which the person’s information-processing capacity is exceeded.
  • In operational terms, situational awareness means understanding the current state and dynamics of a system and being able to anticipate future changes and developments.
  • Vigilance might best be described as a positively motivated intention to be ready to react to a range of inputs. It is an energetic state that air traffic controllers and pilots can turn up and turn down at will, but also a cognitive state can drop off during periods of low stimulus, boredom, fatigue and stress.
  • Research-based evidence shows that the air traffic controller’s memory for flight data is a function of the level of control exercised. Flight-information memory for aircraft in possible conflict is significantly better than flight-information memory for aircraft of less concern at that moment in time and which require little controller intervention.
  • Air traffic controllers who comprehend very well the safety significance of their tasks, and the consequences of taking risks for others, are less likely to deviate from their procedures and working practices. They are more likely to exercise a high degree of care over their actions.

Related Articles


SKYbrary Partners:

Safety knowledge contributed by: