As much as we try to cultivate stillness and slowness in our daily lives (hello, self care!), the reality is life often moves at a fast pace and tends to throw us curveballs, too. When that happens, the ability to think quickly, make fast decisions, and come up with creative solutions on the fly certainly comes in handy in many situations. This is referred to as your mental speed, which is essentially your processing speed.
“At its most basic level, [mental speed] can be defined as how efficiently we understand information to make it meaningful so we can use it,” says Caroline Leaf, PhD, a neuroscientist, mental health and mind expert, and host of the Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast. “Mental speed measures our ability to process and react to any external stimuli, as well as move forward by either responding to that stimuli or making a quick and informed decision based on that stimuli.”
In addition to thinking well on your feet, Dr. Leaf notes the benefits of having a fast mental speed also include better planning and communication skills, the ability to retain new information more quickly, and it can help you stay mentally sharp as you get older.
On the other hand, a slower mental speed could signal neurodegenerative diseases in the future. “Some studies have found that a slower processing speed could possibly be early markers of certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's disease and dementia, which is why testing mental speed could be a good way to understand your possible risks in the future,” Dr. Leaf says.
If you’ve noticed a consistent pattern of struggling to follow or process what people are saying during conversations, lectures, videos, movies, etc., Dr. Leaf says that’s a sign of a slow mental speed. However, she notes that everyone has moments when they struggle to process information. It only signals a slow mental speed when it’s a consistent pattern over time.
All that said, Dr. Leaf emphasizes that a slower mental sleep is not a sign of a lack of intelligence. “Processing speed is one aspect of evaluating an individual’s cognitive functioning, alongside intellectual capacity, attention, communication (including language), concentration, visual-spatial abilities, and memory,” she says. “Cognitive functioning and intelligence are not just about mental speed—they involve a complex variety of factors.”
Certain tools exist to test your mental speed, like this quiz from Psychology Today, which is a fun, non-clinical way to gauge the speed at which you process information and then subsequently make decisions based on what you've learned. Whether your mental speed is fast, slow, or somewhere in the middle (and regardless of the results from that single aforementioned quiz), the good news is that mental speed is a skill that can be practiced and improved. “The mind and brain are neuroplastic, which means they can change,” Dr. Leaf says. Below, she shares three tips to help improve mental speed. But first, you can take this five-minute mental speed quiz to learn your baseline.
How to improve your mental speed
1. Practice deep breathing
Before putting your mental speed skills to the test, some deep breathing can help you prepare. Here’s why: “To make healthy decisions, our brain needs optimal blood, oxygen, and energy flow, especially in the front of the brain—the frontal lobe,” Dr. Leaf says. “Practicing deep breathing or meditation can maintain the constant flow of oxygen to our head and help us think more clearly at a faster pace.”
2. Learn from past mistakes
Instead of labeling your past mistakes as “bad” (especially ones made when making quick decisions), Dr. Leaf recommends trying to understand the why behind the errors to learn from them. “When we do this, our brains will store that information for future use, which can help us process different alternatives and then choose between those alternatives at a faster pace,” she explains.
3. Tap into your non-conscious mind
Dr. Leaf says that our non-conscious mind (also referred to as the subconscious or unconscious mind) operates at a faster speed than our conscious mind. So, training your conscious mind to connect to your non-conscious mind faster can help improve mental speed.
The non-conscious “puts many actions, senses, and stimuli together to form a conscious thought,” Dr. Leaf says, similar to the way cartoon animation quickly strings together many slightly different illustrations to form one fluid action. “We can learn how to evaluate the individual frames of thought, the individual ‘illustrations,’ by self-regulating our stream of consciousness in the moment. This means we must learn how to tune into those individual ‘images’ that make up the ‘action’ we see.’”
To do so, she recommends using a process called Neurocycle, which she discusses in her book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and Neurocycle app. Here’s how to put it into action: After you’ve consumed information from a text or video or audio clip, reflect on the information you learned (e.g., who, what, when, where, why, and how) and write down the information to organize your thinking. Then reread, watch, or listen to the content again and compare it to your notes to get a sense of how much information you processed. From there, Dr. Leaf recommends reteaching the information to yourself to help solidify the new thought network. Repeat as needed.
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