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Processing Speed

Processing speed is the speed at which we can take in information and respond. As for other cognitive skills, processing speed varies among individuals.   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 greater 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.

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.

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.  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.

Slow processing speed can impact social relationships and situations.  If it takes someone 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 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.

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.

Traditional Approaches to Slow Processing Speed

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.  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.

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.


Here is a link to a free online mental speed test on the Psychology Today website.


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

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