What is cognitive processing?

Your brain runs many types of operations, from figuring out how to position your next footfall, to detecting the smell of burning toast, to figuring out how to operate that new electronic device you just bought.

When we talk about the cognitive processing of the brain, we’re not talking about the motor acts (such as the footfall) or the sensory acts (smelling the toast), but instead we’re centering all of the information we’ve gathered and using it to operate effectively in the world (operating your new device).

The brain does an enormous amount of cognitive work all the time, taking in information and transforming it, storing it, recovering it, and putting it to work. Such processing allows us to interact intelligently with the world around us.

Examples of cognitive processes

As an example, imagine you’re at the grocery store, making your weekly shopping excursion. You look for the items you need, make selections among different brands, read the signs in the aisles, work your way over to the cashier and exchange money. All of these operations are examples of cognitive processing.

The speed of these processes dictate our responses to stimuli, known as our reaction time. Over time, reaction time naturally becomes a little slower, but too much slowing may indicate cognitive impairment. Disproportionate slowing can translate to difficulty avoiding obstacles when walking or driving, trouble making decisions, or a struggle to pay attention.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to slow the progression of the natural aging process. Surround yourself with cognitively stimulating activities, whether in the form of formal education, a new hobby, or a new skill learned from the internet.

Engaging in new tasks leads to more and stronger connections between the cells of the brain. More connections mean more pathways for information to travel; more pathways means faster processing speed.

If you want to learn more about cognitive processing and how it can be measured, we invite you to watch the following video.

References

  1. Haworth, J., Phillips, M., Newson, M., Rogers, P. J., Torrens-Burton, A., & Tales, A. (2016). Measuring information processing speed in mild cognitive impairment: clinical versus research dichotomy. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 51(1), 263-275. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-150791
  2. Kerchner, G. A., Racine, C. A., Hale, S., Wilheim, R., Laluz, V., Miller, B. L., & Kramer, J. H. (2012). Cognitive processing speed in older adults: relationship with white matter integrity. PLoS ONE, 7(11), e50425. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0050425
  3. Krch, D. (2011). Cognitive Processing. In J. S. Kreutzer, J. DeLuca, & B. Caplan (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology (pp. 627-627). New York, NY: Springer New York. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-0-387-79948-3_1443
  4. Lu, H., Chan, S. S. M., & Lam, L. C. W. (2017). “Two-level” measurements of processing speed as cognitive markers in the differential diagnosis of DSM-5 mild neurocognitive disorders (NCD). Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-00624-8