Some people are very fast at processing new information and responding to it, and others have a delayed reaction or slow information processing abilities.
In many ways, the human brain is like a computer. It stores, recalls and processes information, or input, just like a computer does. Many factors can affect its ability to do just that, such as genetics, age, illness or dysfunction.
How quickly we can move from understanding something to acting on it is referred to as ‘processing’ speed. Some examples of processing speed in action include recognizing visual patterns, recalling a phone number, solving a simple math equation, and making a decision based on new information you’ve just received.
Processing speed varies from person to person, and is often referred to as ‘thinking speed’. While some folks are able to process information very quickly, others might take twice as long to come to the same conclusion. Those with slow information processing often still end up with the right answer or a perfectly appropriate response, just not as quickly.
Is Slow Information Processing Tied to a Lower IQ?
Having a slower processing speed is not a sign of a lack of intelligence. Nevertheless, slow information processing speed can cause difficulties in relationships, at school, at work and in social situations.
As we age, cognitive function, in general, begins to decline. Information processing speed is included under that umbrella. However, age is not the only thing that can have an effect on your information processing speed. A number of factors can cause slow information processing, from genetics to previous trauma..
As far as getting older goes, what is it about aging that causes information processing speed to slow down, why are some people inherently slower at processing information, and what if any mental health conditions might contribute to or cause slower information processing speed?
Information Processing and Cognitive Function
As we will discuss, slow information processing speed is not a sign of low intelligence. By the same token, being able to process information quickly does not necessarily correlate with high or even above-average intelligence.
If someone has a slow information processing speed, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the information that’s being presented to them. However, completing certain tasks (such as reading, solving equations and taking notes) may be more difficult and will take longer if someone has a slow processing speed.
What’s more, people with a slower information processing speed will sometimes find it difficult to pay attention, begin new tasks, make plans, make decisions, and set goals compared to someone with a quicker information processing speed. This is due to an interference in executive functioning.
Also, to imply that slow information processing speed is a sign of a lack of intelligence is to imply that there is only one type of intelligence, and we know that is not the case. Emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, linguistic, spatial, musical, intrapersonal and interpersonal are only some of the ways in which a person can possess intelligence. Some people strive in one area yet struggle in others.
We see this quite often in cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder. For example, someone on the spectrum might possess exceptionally high musical intelligence yet struggle to interpret social cues such as tone of voice or facial expressions.
On the other hand, someone with fast information processing speed may seem more intelligent because they are able to recall previously learned information quite quickly, but they aren’t necessarily more intelligent than someone who responds slowly. However, having a faster information processing speed usually means that an individual is able to work more quickly and efficiently.
Why Some People are Born with Slow Information Processing
Slow information processing speed might be caused by someone’s brain structure, specifically dendrite length. Dendrites are a specialized part of a neuron.
Brain cells, or neurons, look very different from other cells, which tend to be very small and circular in shape. Brain cells are long and wiry and shaped somewhat like trees. The ‘trunk’, or axon, is the longest part of the neuron, and dendrites would be the branches that extend from the tree.
In order for information to pass from neuron to neuron, chemicals called neurotransmitters need to essentially ‘jump’ across a space between one dendrite to another, which is called a synapse.
In some cases, a person may have fewer dendrites, or the dendrites might be too short. In either case, the space between the neurons is greater, meaning that the neurotransmitters have a further distance to ‘jump’, and information takes longer to be passed on.
Another reason for slow information processing might be that someone has fewer neurotransmitters. Depresion, for example, is characterized by a lack of production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and one prevalent symptom of depression is slower information processing speed.
If you have fewer neurotransmitters related to information processing, such as glutamate, or if your neurotransmitters run into problems passing on information, known as synaptic delay, that could potentially cause slow information processing. Some causes of synaptic delay include genetic factors, drug use, or exposure to toxic chemicals or heavy metals.
How Information is Passed from Neuron to Neuron in the Brain
Finally, we can consider a neurotransmitters’ route when passing information. When information is being passed from neuron to neuron, it takes a specific route called a neural pathway. Over time, if this same information is regularly accessed, it continues to take the same neural pathway. The more often we do or recall something, the faster the information is passed on each time it’s accessed. Think about how many times you need to hear a song before you have memorized the lyrics by heart.
Most of what makes our brains ‘human’ has to do with activity in the frontal lobe, specifically an area called the prefrontal cortex. It’s where most of our executive functioning and, thus, information processing takes place. It’s where we do all of our ‘human’ thinking: things like planning, reasoning, regulating emotions and interpreting visual data.
A poorly organized frontal lobe may be yet another factor that slows down information processing. This might simply be due to malformations or it can be the result of brain or head injuries.
Slow Processing Speed and Mental Health Problems
Someone’s slow processing speed might also be due to mental health issues.
Visual processing disorders such as dyslexia or dyscalculia and auditory processing disorders often cause delays in information processing. If someone has a visual or auditory processing disorder, the way they see and hear things is not affected, but their brains have difficulty interpreting the information. Overcoming these obstacles involves a lot of hard work, and people with auditory or visual processing disorders need to take ‘extra steps’ when it comes to learning, which obviously affects the speed at which information is processed.
Additionally, ADHD has been linked to information processing speed, but perhaps not in the way that you think. According to this study, which discussed the treatment outcomes of children diagnosed with ADHD, “In adults with ADHD, symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been associated with faster processing speed and symptoms of inattentiveness have been associated with slower processing speed”.
Finally, slower information processing speeds have also been seen in cases of schizophrenia. “Specifically, processing speed is consistently shown to be a disproportionate deficit in schizophrenia against a backdrop of a generalized cognitive deficit. As such, it has been hypothesized that processing speed might mediate a broader array of cognitive impairments in schizophrenia,” according to a study that looked at processing speeds and the working memory of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Mood Disorders and Information Processing Speed
Mood disorders such as anxiety disorders and depression, often go hand-in-hand with information processing speed. Although information processing speed isn’t related to intelligence, the disruptions and difficulties slow information processing causes to thinking and learning can be frustrating and make it difficult to develop perseverance. It can also cause low self-esteem and a poor self-image in both children and adults.
What’s more, as children get older and issues due to slow information processing become more apparent, it can lead to negative feelings about learning and their ability to learn. Combined, all of these issues related to slow information processing can exacerbate certain mental health problems, particularly mood disorders.
At the same time, having a mood disorder can cause your information processing speed to slow down, either due to the symptoms themselves or as a side effect of medications.
People with anxiety often experience brain fog and slower reactions.
In depression, slowed thoughts and an impaired ability to think are two prevalent symptoms that are directly related to information processing speed. A study from 2008 ultimately found that the main difference between depressed adolescents and those without depression, in terms of academic performance, was due to processing speed, not in the individual’s ability to do tasks like spell and read.
Furthermore, people who suffer from chronic anxiety might find that their ability to process information quickly is impaired due to a constant state of arousal. When the brain is in a panicked and alert state, as is the case with chronic anxiety, it is essentially ‘frozen in fear’ and stops processing information.
Finally, patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder have also exhibited some deficits in overall cognitive ability, including information processing, but there is a very high degree of variability in the type and severity of cognitive impairment.
Why Information Processing Speed Slows Down As We Age
The fact that information processing speed gets slower as we get older is a concept that many of us inherently know. This is mostly due to a decay in white matter.
White matter is the tissue that is found deep within the brain. It contains axons, which are coated in a fatty substance called myelin, which protects and insulates the axons. Myelin is white-ish in color, which is how white matter derived its name.
When neurons talk to each other, messages between different parts of the nervous system pass through white matter. Over time, as white matter begins to decay, a slower transfer of information is the result.
Some people have a genetic predisposition for white matter decay, although the scientific community does not fully understand why this happens. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are usually marked by cognitive decline and slowed information processing. They are linked to white matter decay, and since cases of these diseases are on the rise as the population ages and lives longer, more and more money is being poured into research to better understand what causes decay in the first place.
However, we do know of some risk factors that are directly linked with white matter decay. Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, as well as activities like smoking, are collectively referred to as ‘vascular risk factors’ because limit healthy blood flow to the brain, essentially starving the blood vessels that feed white matter the oxygen and glucose that it needs.
Other risk factors of white matter decay include head injuries, infections, autoimmune diseases, and genetic diseases like leukodystrophies.
Most of us will experience some decline in information processing as we age, but there are some things we can do to mitigate a decline in information processing or even improve our ability to process information. Abstaining from the aforementioned vascular risk factors, exercising regularly, eating a healthy and balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep can help. Most importantly, continuing to challenge yourself intellectually by taking part in activities like crossword puzzles, reading, and learning new skills can help you maintain your ability to process information quickly and efficiently.
Do You Have a Genetically Slower Information Processing Speed?
There are many factors that contribute to slow or fast information processing speed, and your genetic makeup is one of the most influential contributing factors.
Some gene mutations directly affect a person’s ability to process newly learned information. The CADM2 gene is specifically linked to thinking speed and communication between brain cells, and some people who have a slower processing speed have gene mutations at or near CADM2.
To find out various traits about yourself, including your information processing abilities, take a DNA test from CircleDNA, which analyzes your genes and can tell you more about your brain’s information processing power, as well as some of your other genetic success traits.
- EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS WITH MAJOR DEPRESSIVE DISORDER (Tricia Favre, Carroll Hughes, Graham Emslie, Peter Stavinoha, Beth Kennard & Thomas Carmody) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2822399/
- Working memory and processing speed training in schizophrenia: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial (Briana D. Cassetta & Vina M. Goghari) https://trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-016-1188-5#:~:text=Specifically%2C%20processing%20speed%20is%20consistently,impairments%20in%20schizophrenia%20%5B68%5D
- Processing Speed Predicts Behavioral Treatment Outcomes in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Predominantly Inattentive Type (Christopher J. Adalio, Elizabeth B. Owens, Keith McBurnett, Stephen P. Hinshaw & Linda J. Pfiffner) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5807232/#:~:text=Indeed%2C%20in%20adults%20with%20ADHD,et%20al.%2C%202005).