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What Is “Cognitive Processing Speed?”

Cognitive processing speed (or simply processing speed) is the speed at which we can take in information and respond. Processing speed varies among individuals just like other cognitive skills.  It is important to clarify that processing speed is not the same as intelligence.  If someone has slower processing speed, that does not mean that person is less intelligent than someone with faster processing speed.  In fact, it is not uncommon to see slow processing speed in individuals with high intelligence.

It is also important to recognize that an individual may process different kinds of inputs at different speeds. This inconsistency can be confusing. A classic example is a child with strong processing speed for visual information who can respond very quickly while playing a video game but who takes longer to process auditory information, such as when they hear a parent or teacher give them a set of instructions. Generally, however, a child who has been diagnosed with slow processing speed processes more than one type of information more slowly than typical for their age.

Processing speed can also vary over a lifetime.  There is substantial evidence that processing speed declines with age, with older individuals needing more time to complete a mental task than younger adults.

What Is Slow Processing Speed?

Slow cognitive processing speed characterizes someone who takes considerably longer to accomplish tasks than their peers. In other words, slow processing speed is relative, not absolute. It is generally assessed by the speed of performance of some standardized task or tasks on a normed cognitive assessment.

Some of the difficulties or symptoms of slow processing speed are fairly obvious.  A child with slow processing speed usually takes much longer than their peers to get their work done, to catch on to a new concept, or to respond when asked a question. Sometimes even seemingly simple decisions, such as which shirt to wear or which cereal to have for breakfast can take good many seconds to process.

Kids with slow processing speed often dread tests or anything that sounds like a speed drill, so a math fluency test, a reading speed test or a quick drill on the basketball court may all result in anxiety or even a meltdown.

Slow processing speed can impact social relationships and situations.  If it takes a child a while to process what a friend is saying to them, it can look like they’re not paying attention, like they don’t care what the other person is saying, or doesn’t think what they’re saying is important.  It may take longer to pick up on social cues, like a delayed response when the teacher asks students to be quiet, or an adult who continues to talk after the movie starts. Misinterpretation of slower processing speed is quite common. A child who doesn’t respond promptly to a request from a teacher, for example, might be perceived as oppositional or unmotivated, when it is simply taking them longer to figure out what the request means and to take action on it.

Slower processing speed can compound weaknesses in other cognitive skills, like working memory.  For an individual with limited working memory capacity, by the time they process a set of instructions, key information may no longer be available in working memory.  Thus, the combination of the two creates even more difficulties and it is important to understand how strong or weak both skills are because of this interaction.

Strategies for Slow Processing Speed

Slow processing speed is not, in and of itself, considered a learning disability. In fact many gifted and highly intelligent individuals have slower processing speed. However, there are a variety of approaches and interventions for slow processing speed that schools and parents are apt to rely on. The most common approaches to support individuals with slow processing speed include:

  • Providing extra time to complete assignments and tests.
  • Using a visual timer or other prompt to help with pacing and awareness of time.
  • Assigning less work.

These approaches can help individuals with slower processing speed to demonstrate their knowledge or accomplish a particular task, however, these strategies can have unanticipated negative consequences and need to be applied carefully.  For example, timers could also create added pressure and increase stress, so care need to be taken with their use.  Care also should be taken on assigning less work so that students don’t end up with gaps in learning or an insufficient opportunity to develop mastery of key skills.

It is possible to improve processing speed for discrete, routine tasks with a lot of practice, so this is another option for common everyday activities.  For example, with repeated practice of the same steps, a child may increase the speed with which they make their bed, or complete some other procedural tasks.  However, doing so would not have an effect on novel tasks or tasks that require interpretation of complex stimuli.

When it comes to social situations, a technique that many find helpful when one needs some time to process an idea or a question and doesn’t want the other person to misinterpret their lack of a response is to say, “Just a minute, I’m thinking,” or “Just a moment, I’m processing.”  That simple statement can help others understand and ease social interactions.

Keep in mind that these approaches are not intended to improve an individual’s processing speed, merely to help them cope with the fact that it takes them a longer time to manage cognitive tasks.

Increasing Processing Speed

Processing speed can often be improved with comprehensive, integrated cognitive training, to a greater degree than many realize.

Many of the students we work with score significantly lower in processing speed than their peers.  On average for students assessed in 2019 and 2020, the average score on processing speed was at the 22nd percentile.  This means that these students scored better than only 22 percent of their peers on this measure.  More than half of the students scored in the range that would be considered a Weakness (more than one standard deviation below the mean).  Following 12 to 14 weeks of cognitive training with BrainWare SAFARI, most saw significant gains in processing speed as well as in other cognitive skills.  The average processing speed score for this group improved to the 37th percentile, within the middle of the expected range for their ages/genders.  The percentage of students performing in the Weakness range decreased by more than half.

Along with the changes we can measure with a cognitive assessment, children themselves and their parents often notice changes.  One 13-year-old female student, whose processing speed score improved from the 13th to the 25th percentile over 12 weeks of cognitive training, talked about being “more awake” or more alert.  Parents talk about children participating in conversations at the dinner table which they are now able to keep up with.

A classic example of how a child might experience this improvement comes from a middle-school-age young man who got the first A he’d ever gotten on a science test.  He usually got Cs and Ds.  When asked what was different, the student said he had started taking notes.  He said that his science teacher was talking more slowly and so that he could take notes and follow what the teacher was saying at the same time.  This student’s teacher had been teaching science for more than 30 years.  His teaching had not slowed down; the student’s ability to process the information had sped up.

The other advantage of comprehensive, integrated cognitive training is that it can strengthen a broad range of cognitive skills, including working memory. Recall that limited working memory capacity can exacerbate the difficulties children have with slower processing speed. Strengthening both skill areas and ensuring that they work more effectively together is important to effect the greatest improvement.

Is Faster Processing Speed Better?

The short answer, is: not always. Many children score high in processing speed on cognitive tests but at the cost of accuracy.  Children with attention issues, or lower working memory capacity sometimes work at a quicker pace that does not permit them to give deliberate thought to their responses.  And we see children with little confidence in their ability to do a task who rush through it just to get it done, getting an above-average speed score, but a low score for the accuracy of their work.  This problem is often referred to as an issue with pacing.  And just like slower processing speed, comprehensive integrated cognitive training can improve pacing, enabling children to work at a more consistent rate that helps to ensure that they complete their work both efficiently and accurately.

Assessing Processing Speed

Processing speed is commonly assessed as part of a general cognitive assessment and it is important to understand an individual’s other cognitive skills as well in order to ascertain the role of processing speed vis a vis other cognitive skills, such as working memory.

Just because we all like to see how we do compared to others, here is a link to a free online mental speed test on the Psychology Today website.

Knowing whether you did well or poorly on that test, however, has limited to value. If you are concerned about any of the processing speed issues discussed here, you should consider a more comprehensive cognitive assessment to get a more complete picture.

And remember! Processing speed, like other cognitive processes, can be improved with the right kind of cognitive training.

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