Slow Processing Speed...Video Game Therapy?

"I used to take these maths tests which were supposed to be done in one period and it took me not just that period but the next one which was a play period and sometimes the one beyond that before I finished the test. And it was only then that I started to do well." - Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist

On the WISC-IV, the most commonly used general ability or IQ test here in the US, the processing speed index is comprised from Symbol Search (a visual search task) and Coding (a visual symbol copying task). If all the other parts of the IQ test are high, but the processing speed index is low, there will almost always be significant problems keeping up with work demands in the classroom.

Slow processing speed seems to occur in many different situations, but the most common associated conditions are probably ADD / ADHD, dyslexia, premature birth or other birth stress or toxic exposure. We don't know whether Penrose had dyslexia, but interestingly, strong spatial thinkers alse seem to have this slower processing speed style perhaps because brain wiring that favors nonverbal over verbal thinking. Students with sensory processing disorder also often have very slow processing speeds. A very low PSI (Processing Speed Index) usually means slowness in visual scanning, decision-making, and motor output.

Because slow processing speed is not a specifiic learning disability itself, there's surprisingly little targeted research into why it happens or how it can be helped. That's why the paper Increase Speed of Processing with Video Games caught our attention.

It's from the Bavelier lab and they found that action video game play was associated with quicker reaction times, better sustained attention (TOVA), without sacrificing accuracy (they busted the myth that gamers are trigger happy or impulsive). Training on video games improved speed of processing for both gamers and non gamers, and some generalization of the effect was suggested.

The research raises some interesting thoughts. Now, many students diagnosed with ADD already love video gaming - so their problem may not be poor sustained visual attention (it's may already be good for computer activities), but rather that they can't easily attend to less visually stimulating or exciting classroom work.

But the findings do make us think that some kids - perhaps some of those with reduced visual spans and / or prominent sensory processing challenges  may get some benefit from videogames. As it turns out, those kids often don't like games (over movies for that matter).  Maybe what would help is some play with the old games - like Space Invaders or Galaxians. These games still require visual scanning, decision making and motor timing, bilateral hand coordination, and simple repetitive motor output, but are not so fast or as unpredictable as current releases.

Don't expect these games to totally revamp their cognition, but if processing speed can be boost a bit, perhaps it will lighten up the demand on working memory (short term memory that keeps relevant facts in mind), and may be it might help free up additional resources for higher order brain work.

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  1. If you look hard enough, I’m sure you can find good in everything. This is not the first time that research has found a positive aspect to playing video games, but one still has to wonder if the purported benefits outweigh potential harm.

    Don’t get me wrong; I love a good video game, but I just can’t justify using them to help strengthen cognitive development. I work with children with attention and learning problems. Specifically, we try to address cognitive, sensory and nutrition issues that negatively impact our students’ abilities to attend and learn. There is simply too much evidence out there that too much media exposure – including video games – can hurt sensory development, decrease attention, and hurt physical development. Given my students’ near addiction to these games, I’ve written on this subject before (

    Kids now consume more media than ever before, roughly seven and a half (7 ½) hours a day – even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two (2) hours a day for children over the age of two, and the fact that excessive media consumption has been linked with among other things, obesity, violence, disturbed sleep and sensory integration issues.

    It’s hard to deny a child the opportunity to play video games, especially when all their friends are playing. It’s also hard to attack what seems to have become an accepted part of life, and one that generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. Yes, it’s easy to say that we parents should better monitor and restrict our children’s time playing video games, and get them outside to play, but with the daily demands on our lives, and the ease and seductive nature of these games, not to mention the bombardment of child-targeted marketing, isn’t it easier to just “prove” the games are good for you somehow, and alleviate any sense of guilt we may have about letting our kids play?

  2. Can auditory processing disorder also effect processing speed?

  3. On the WISC-IV, Processing Speed Index is usually defined on the basis of Coding (essentially copying simple symbols from a legend) and Symbol Search a less motor demanding task which requires visual search and discrimination of similar figures.

    APD can cause processing speed deficits - though that was not what this study was assessing because it used the WISC-IV. What you see slow in APD kids and adults is their response to auditory questions and how quickly they can answer.

  4. I am curious about the research available related to your statement, "Students with sensory processing disorder also often have very slow processing speeds." Do you have suggestions of where to look for more about this? Also, I certainly agree that "If all the other parts of the IQ test are high, but the processing speed index is low, there will almost always be significant problems keeping up with work demands in the classroom," but has anyone studied this formally? (If so, who?)

  5. I am curious about the research out there related to the connection between sensory processing disorder and slow processing speeds. Can anyone point me in the right direction?
    Also, I certainly agree that "If all the other parts of the IQ test are high, but the processing speed index is low, there will almost always be significant problems keeping up with work demands in the classroom," but has anyone formally measured this? (If so, who?)

  6. There are many papers correlating processing speed and academic performance. For internet available sources, just put "processing speed academic performance" into

  7. Isn't there different kinds of processing? my son has incredible visual processing speed, but language processing or verbal processing is very slow....he had/has a language delay.

  8. Hi Unknown, Ye there are different kinds of processing. Brain cells in the outer part of the brain (cortex) are connected with different pathways - and these pathways can vary in how fast they conduct signals or are developing.

    The implication is that specific training up weak areas will speed processing. The WISC-IV IQ test uses Coding and Symbol Search as estimates of processing speed. Speed of word retrieval, for instance, isn't in the WISC-IV. Language processing speed is in some other tests - like the WIAT-III Achievement.

  9. See Scientific American Magazine, Feburary 2014 edition, cover story: The Benefits of Video Gaming (Really).