Cognitive Processing Speed: Is it important?

Numbers, letters, the words spoken during a conversation—it takes time to makes sense of and respond to elements of cognition. The pace in which an individual processes information is known as cognitive processing speed. Both children and adults rely on cognitive processing speed for daily functions. Familiarizing yourself with what cognitive processing speed is, the various types, and what conditions are associated with poor processing speed are key to boosting cognitive skills.

Cognitive Processing Speed
Cognitive Processing Speed

What is Cognitive Processing Speed?

Cognitive processing speed is a cognitive skill characterized by the pace an individual processes incoming information. The time it takes someone to perceive information, understand it, and then respond is the essence of cognitive processing speed.

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Measurement of cognitive processing speed is not just a skill that is implemented in academics. While it does determine the pace one responds to letters and numbers in reading and math, it also accounts for comprehending words in a conversation. Cognitive processing speed is divided into three categories: visual, verbal, and motor.

Cognitive Processing Speed: Visual Processing

Visual processing speed is the pace of responding to a visual stimulus. Experts explain that the responses “can be made with reference to many types of visual tasks” (Owsley, 2012). This includes detecting or identifying a stimulus, recognizing a familiar stimulus, defining a stimulus, and differentiating between multiple stimuli. Visual processing speed is useful in educational settings, as reading and recognizing numbers form its basis.

However, visual processing is beneficial socially. Interpreting social cues, such as hand gestures in a conversation, is considered processing visual stimuli too. Its connection with attention and short-term memory lends reason as to why visual processing speed is a necessary cognitive skill.

Cognitive Processing Speed: Verbal Processing

Verbal processing speed pertains to hearing a stimulus. The verbal processing category consists of hearing information like while participating in a conversation or listening to a lecture. Verbal processing is the time required to comprehend what is said and then to formulate and execute a response—making this skill imperative for language and communication. Aside from conversation, listening to a lecture and following spoken instructions is verbal processing.

Cognitive Processing Speed: Motor Speed

Motor processing speed involves the fine motor skills that assist in cognition. Movements in the hands, wrist, and fingers aid in facilitating academic fluency. An example of motor processing speed is copying sight words or completing timed math worksheets in class. The swiftness and coordination of the hands while writing is the motor speed used to carry out learned tasks. Although motor speed does not seem to be as paramount to cognition as visual and verbal processing, it is still fundamental in the educational pursuits of cognitive processing.

Cognitive Processing Speed in Adults
Cognitive Processing Speed in Adults

Signs of Slow Cognitive Processing Speed

Having slow cognitive processing speed is not a matter of intelligence. It does not dictate the capability of learning new information. Instead, someone with poor cognitive processing speed requires longer to employ the strategies needed for functioning. They do eventually arrive at an answer or respond, but it takes more time.

Cognitive processing speed is a developmental milestone for children that greatly impacts their adult life. The cognitive skill is just as critical in childhood as it is in adulthood because it is related to memory capacity, visual attention span, and motor movement. There are particular signs of slow processing speed in adults and children.

Slow Cognitive Processing Speed in Children

Children with slow processing speed display deficits at home and in school. Whether in basic conversation or while completing classwork, recognizing slow processing speed in children is the responsibility of parents and teachers if the child shows a combination of the following:

  • Multistep instructions—Directions that include multiple steps can be challenging to follow. Those with slow processing speed might only follow the first instruction without finish the rest.
  • Academic fluency—They are less fluent in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic than others in the same age group.
  • Careless errors—Points on tests are marked off for careless errors due to rushing to finish in within the time constraint.
  • Slow speech—Speech is slow and lacking accurate word retrieval.
  • Social cues—The time it takes to interpret social cues is increased, which causes a barrier in social situations. 
  • Completing work on time—Tests and homework require longer to complete and are often submitted late.
  • Reading comprehension—They read information multiple times for understanding.
  • Time management—Parents of children with slow processing speed find it challenging to get their children prepared in time for daily activities. For example, eating breakfast and getting dressed prior to leaving for school. It is a hassle to get them out the door.
  • Confused in conversation—They cannot keep up and become confused when a conversation switches topic.
  • Easy frustrationAs students, children with slow processing speed feel inadequate to their peers. 
  • Indecisiveness—They are overwhelmed when asked to make simple decisions (i.e. what to eat, what to wear, etc.).

Slow Cognitive Processing Speed in Adults

In early adulthood, cognitive processing speed is at its highest. That efficiency declines in mid to late adulthood. Slow processing speed in adults is noticed less frequently by professionals because they lack an educational setting. Below are the signs of slow processing speed in adults:

  • Always late—Poor time management skills interfere with the ability to arrive on time.
  • Poor memory—Slow processing speed inevitably impacts other cognitive skills and executive functions, including short- and long-term memory. Since memory naturally declines in adulthood, it does even more so in the case of slow processing speed.
  • Delayed movements—Movements that promote academic fluency do not occur as automatically as it should.
  • Strong emotions—Much like children, adults with slow processing speed also experience frustration, low self-esteem, and anger because they feel inferior to their peers.
  • Delayed replies to a conversationResponse time is hindered, as they do not comprehend the main idea of a conversation.
  • Must read things multiple times—Adults read as part of daily functioning, and with slow processing speed, words are not easily understood without reading sentences more than once.  
  • Inattention—Attention is another cognitive process effected by cognitive speed.

How To Measure Cognitive Processing Speed

Professionals measure cognitive processing speed through a stringent neuropsychiatric evaluation. The tests ascertain how well children and adults process verbal and visual information. The person undergoing the assessment must possess a foundation for basic educational knowledge to receive an accurate score.

  • CogniFit is able to precisely measure the user’s general cognitive level with our specialized Cognitive Assessment Battery (CAB), which is comprised of a series of cognitive tests designed to assess processing speed.
  • WIAT-3—Results reflect the strengths and weaknesses as a student through reading, writing, and math fluency. The test contains sections such as wording reading, decoding, numerical operations, oral expression, reading comprehension, spelling, and more.
  • The Wechsler Scales (WPPSI-4, WISC-V, WAIS-4)—Used to assess children aged 6 to 16, the Wechsler Scales measure processing speed through visual spatial index, fluid reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension. The format is either digital or paper and pencil. Results are compared to samples of those in the same age category.
  • NEPSY 2 (The Speeded Naming Test)—The Speed Naming Test is the pace required to name shapes, colors, letters, and numbers. It also tests word generation.
  • Woodcock Johnson III (Tests of Achievement) and Woodcock-Johnson IV—The Woodcock Johnson tests measure all cognitive skills, but especially cognitive processing speed. This intelligence test is best utilized in adults up to 90 years old.
  • Stroop or Color Word Naming Test—The Stroop Naming Test gauges the ability to inhibit cognitive interference. In studies, “the participants are required to perform a less automated task (i.e., naming ink color) while inhibiting the interference arising from a more automated task (i.e., reading the word)” (Scarpina & Tagini, 2017).
  • RAN/RAS (Rapid Automatized Naming & Alternating Stimulus Tests)—As the name implies, RAN/RAS tests entail the rapid naming of shapes, colors, numbers, and letters. If name time is delayed, it is indicative of slow processing speed.

Causes of Slow Cognitive Processing Speed

Research attributes slow cognitive processing to biological changes in the nervous system. The matter comprising the brain’s frontal lobe, which is the area that controls executive functioning, is diminished in those with slow cognitive processing speed. The white matter inhibits signals from passing between neurons as they normally do.  

The beginning step of establishing strategies to improve processing speed is determining the underlying cause. Poor cognitive processing speed can develop for a variety of reasons. External distractions, especially in children, contributes to slow processing speed. Noise, sound, and light prevent the comprehension and response to perceived information. Learning difficulties and stress also delay cognition. Physical factors such as stress, inconsistent sleep patterns, and nutritional deficiencies have negative effects on the brain to cause slow cognitive processing speed.

Conditions Associated with Slow Cognitive Processing Speed

•    Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—ADHD is a mental disorder manifesting as inattention, hyperactive behavior, and impulsiveness. The diagnosis leaves someone prone to slow processing speed because they are susceptible to external distractions (i.e. noise, lights, etc.) that delay the thinking process. 

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•    Auditory Processing Disorder—Auditory processing disorder is a disorder affecting the ability to understand speech. It is related to delayed cognitive processing because those with the condition take longer to understand and respond to verbal stimuli.

•    Dyslexia—Dyslexia is a specific learning disability classified by difficulty reading, identifying speech sounds, and decoding letters and words. Symptoms influence processing speed when dyslexia hinders the quick recognition of reading words and decoding words in spoken communication.

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•    Dyscalculia—Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. People with dyscalculia struggle with number concepts like recognizing numbers, calculating math problems, and using symbols. Dyscalculia is more likely to delay visual processing rather than verbal.

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•    Autism Spectrum Disorder—Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder causing challenges with social skills, communication, behavior, and speech. Autism is related to slow processing speed because those with the disorder process the stimuli in their environment differently.

Improving Cognitive Processing Speed

Like other cognitive processes, improving processing speed is possible. Strengthening connections in the brain decreases the time required to process information. Ranging from lifestyle adjustments to brain training, one is not bound to stagnant processing speed forever.

Brain Training

Jigsaw puzzles, video games, and online brain games each call upon information intake. These tasks present stimuli that requires visual processing to continually scan the game environment. Activities train the brain through the brain’s neural circuits. Cognitive processing speed improves as the brain solidifies the connections necessary for information processing.

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Learn New Skills

Practice makes perfect. The more often we repeat a task, the easier it becomes. Learning new skills through repetition is an effective way to lessen the time it takes to process information. Repetition will ensure the task is automatic. For example, you are more likely to recognize a word you have written down in the past over a word you have never seen before.

Diet

The brain has energy to perform its functions by the nutrition we feed our bodies. For the brain to work at its fullest potential, it necessitates a balanced diet with adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Incorporating “brain foods” into a balanced diet provides the brain with resources to repair itself and serves as a protection barrier from oxidative stress. Examples of brain foods are walnuts filled with vitamin E, berries rich with antioxidants, avocados for healthy fats, fish for omega-3 essential fatty acids, and green leafy vegetables for a complete vitamin and mineral profile.

Exercise

Daily exercise is successful at improving cognitive processing speed. Movement of the body increases blood flow and oxygenizes the brain, which keeps the electrical signals strong and white matter from decaying. Light aerobic exercise is sufficient.

Socialization

Maintaining social contact affords the opportunity to engage in stimulating conversation. Engaging in conversation is essentially practice in listening, comprehension, and interpretation. As those skills are trained, the quicker one is able to respond to verbal information. Socialization introduces new ideas to challenge the thinking process. There is always potential for progress in cognitive processing speed.

References

Owsley C. (2012). Visual processing speed. Vision research, 90, 52-6.

Scarpina, F., & Tagini, S. (2017). The Stroop Color and Word Test. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 557. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00557