There is evidence that stress-induced disruption of the circadian rhythm of cortisol secretion, has negative consequences for brain health. The cortisol awakening response (CAR) is the most prominent and dynamic aspect of this rhythm. It has complex regulatory mechanisms making it distinct from the rest of the cortisol circadian rhythm, and is frequently investigated as a biomarker of stress and potential intermediary between stress and impaired brain function. Despite this, the precise function of the CAR within the healthy cortisol circadian rhythm remains poorly understood. Cortisol is a powerful hormone known to influence cognition in multiple and complex ways. Studies of the CAR and cognitive function have used varied methodological approaches which have produced similarly varied findings. The present review considers the accumulating evidence linking stress, attenuation of the CAR and reduced cognitive function, and seeks to contextualize the many findings to study populations, cognitive measures, and CAR methodologies employed. Associations between the CAR and both memory and executive functions are discussed in relation to its potential role as a neuroendocrine time of day signal that synchronizes peripheral clocks throughout the brain to enable optimum function, and recommendations for future research are provided.