We ask our brains to perform many complex tasks every single day. Our brains age differently, based on a wide variety of factors including normal aging, lifestyle, genetics, environment and more. However, one of the hallmark changes for our cognitive aging is slowed processing speed. One of the first mental processes impacted by biological age (our birthday) is our processing speed. In general, processing speed starts to decline in our mid-20s and more so after our mid-40s. Despite this universal, normal age-related change, there are still ways to purposefully engage our brains to train for speed.
Cognitive Reserve + Processing Speed
Cognitive reserve refers to our brain’s resistance to physical damage including our cognitive processes and neural networks that support our optimal brain function. Cognitive reserve and processing speed come together to buffer some of our brain’s changes and brain aging. The more we purposefully grow our cognitive reserve and challenge our processing speed, the greater influence the two have on the overall efficiency of our brain and higher cognitive processes (decision making, planning and more).
Processing speed is simply defined as the time it takes to complete a mental task. Processing speed is complex. First, we perceive information from one of our senses which may involve our visual processing, verbal processing or motor processing. Then, we process the information. And then, we formulate a response. This simplified three-step process occurs quickly and many times unconsciously (depending on the task).
Essentially, the higher our processing speed is for a given mental task, the more efficiently we can learn and think. With greater speed, we can learn new things or re-learn old tasks, too. Think about information you would have rapidly known before, such as your multiplication tables (mental math) or reasoning questions (timed tasks). With time, the easiest way that we can accurately complete these tasks or re-learn these tasks encompasses our processing speed.
The ACTIVE Study
The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was the first large-scale (+2,800 adults), randomized trial to test cognitive training and its possible long-term outcomes on the prevention of cognitive decline. Launched in 1996, this study has been published in over 100 peer reviewed papers and has been documenting the impact and real-world benefits of brain training for over 10 years. Findings from this study have found that one task — “Double Decision” — influences our brain’s processing speed.
By speeding up our brain training, we can have an impact on our everyday life and maintain our independence. Currently, the Double-Decision based task is part of the brain training of Brain HQ, which offers free and paid cognitive brain training for users. You can learn more about double-decision task here and see how difficult the brain training levels get for just this one task.
Train Your Brain
We can train, learn, and improve our processing speed with intentional exercises and brain challenges. Computerized brain training is just one option that has a demonstrated impact on processing speed. Below are a few exercises that you can try online, with paper and pencil, or mentally.
- The Stroop test is a common measure in psychology for processing speed and inhibition. We can read words faster than we can name colors and the Stroop test challenges us with this task. We are simply asked to name the color of a word in a list. Sounds simple, but when reading the list of words, we must remember not to “read” the word. Make your brain sweat in this timed task. Try it for free here. This tasks gets at the main notion if processing speed “the ability to perform simple, repetitive cognitive tasks quickly and fluently.”
- Complete a symbol search puzzle or worksheet in your brain games book. This task commonly provides a key for a number (1-9) paired with a simple symbol (like a “V”). You work through the sheet by properly labeling the symbol based on the number. The goal is to work through the puzzle in order and not to fill out all the “2” at one time. Challenging your brain to learn an arbitrary key and to constantly switching information is one way to challenge your processing speed.
- Play the “Name 10” game. Pick a category or topic and simply state at least 10 items from that food category (berries, vegetables, grains, spices and more), 10 types of cars (sports cars, classic cars, etc.), or identify 10 things that a baby does (cries, eats, sleeps, smiles, etc.).
- Beat the clock. This simple brain workout can be added to one of your favorite tasks by simply adding the element of time. For example, set a timer and see how many words you find in the first five minutes of your word search or list how many words that start with the letter “r” in one minute. Take a task that you enjoy and play against the clock… cards, puzzles, and more. Monitor your performance over time and have fun. Keep in mind, the goal for this challenge should be to make your brain sweat so do not get discouraged. Set a time limit that makes your brain work and see what is achievable. (Think short-interval training.)
Remember that efficient brain processing focuses on utilizing minimal brain effort (focus, attention, energy, control) in the fastest time (speed). Ultimately, engaging our brain in a wide variety of tasks that are not too easy is key for our cognitive fitness. Focus on speed (time) as one fun way to get in some mind cardio. You got this!
In brain health & wellness,