ABOUT Processing Speed

Measures that Don’t . . .

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part One of the Brain-Based Processing Series

How fast do YOU process?

Instructions per second [IPS] is a long-standing measure of a computer‘s processor speed – how many binary elements of information it can put through the input/output process each second.

IPS is no longer useful – at least it is no longer the most useful measure of computer “processing speed.”


Because computers (and the computer field) have reached the point of complexity where OPERATIONS per second have become the measurement that will “scratch the itch” of the goal of the measurement: allowing human beings to work faster because our computers “process faster.”

Computers that work more efficiently, requiring fewer individual “instructions” to accomplish an operation, “process faster” from the user’s perspective.

Computers that optimize the bootstrapping process efficiently can out-perform computers with faster IPS speed, hands down, to the delight of the computer chip manufacturing industry.

Will that work for US?

To a limited extent, computer concepts apply to the study and understanding of human processing efficiency as well — but the central problem becomes one that doesn’t transfer at all.

How to measure a human being’s “processing speed” —
sometimes referred to as cognitive processing speed

  • WHAT IS IT that we think we’re measuring
    when we ask, essentially, “How fast?”
  • HOW do we measure it?
  • WHY is it useful to know the answer?

Let’s look at the last question first: Why IS it useful?

We have reached the point of complexity where the goal of the studies – for which the measurements that quantify results confirm or counter theories – is more important than ever before: figuring out how human beings can work more efficiently.

Human biology has not kept pace with human technology.  To extend the computer analogy, we’re long overdue for an operating system upgrade to be able to run the programs we’ve designed — without having to recover from repeated system crashes.

For some time now, we have been attempting to run our lives and our planet well beyond the limits of how “fast” we can work with our current “human-being technology” (aka our brains and bodies).

Our “technology” was not designed to keep up with the onslaught of “operations” we expect it to process every single day.

Chronic Stress is a manifestation of human systems breakdown

CHRONIC STRESS will make us sick (if it doesn’t kill us first)

Our “human-being technology” can’t handle the job any longer: it is breaking down. It HAS broken down – and we’re attempting to limp along with broken equipment. You can barely open your email or browse the web without seeing items alerting you to the need to manage stress – tacitly acknowledging my point. We’re maxed!

(see What Chronic Stress Does to your Brain for an overview of only SOME of the resultant harm to cognition and functional objectives) — and stay tuned for more from me in future articles about processing efficiently.

An Equal Opportunity Destroyer

No longer limited to those of us with inborn or acquired cognitive challenges,
processing struggles are now everybody’s reality and EVERYBODY’s problem.
In the industrialized world, breakdowns are endemic.

We have become a nation of overwhelm – united by our collective lack of time,
our inability to manage our lives effectively, and our rising stress levels.

In a state of overwhelm, we might as well ALL have diagnostic ADD. 


UNFORTUNATELY, those who haven’t had to live with cognitive challenges – including those who don’t even believe in the concept – haven’t the first clue as to what to do to work around the limits of cognition when it lands in their very own laps.

Obviously.  Look at what they have created in US workplaces alone:

  • The implementation of corporate policies and workplace  organization, supposed “profitability” systems and structures, designed to be easier to administrate and measure, which make it
  • more difficult for employees to accomplish their hybrid job functions, which are
  • already barely manageable due to down-sizing (and somebody’s bright idea that it would save time and money to get rid of offices, doors and administrative support) — at the same time,
  • RAISING productivity expectations, tasking executives and supervisors to manage the unmanageable
    (who add their own unworkable systems and structures in desperate attempts to do so)

ALL without awareness or consideration of how the human brain functions best,
or what might make it practically impossible for it to function at all.

Not working, is it?

The “systems” they put into place only make things worse —
and whipping the galley slaves harder will NEVER be the answer!

Things COULD be worse – you could be a cognitive neuroscientist

UNLESS they choose to design an “out of the box” metastudy of that “hateful” anecdotal reportage of the several millions of us who have had years of experience learning to “drive our brains” more efficiently (because we’ve had no other choice), they are stuck between a rock and a hard place it may take years to crawl out from under:

They have to study it scientifically

Before cognitive neuroscience can STUDY processing efficiency or processing speed, they have to be able to figure out how to measure it with sufficient accuracy.

Before they can measure it, they have to agree on what, exactly, they are measuring.

THEN they have to agree on HOW it will be best measured.

Only THEN can they move along to the rest of the process:
• designing the studies, • getting funding for the studies, • drafting participants for the studies, • conducting the studies, • compiling the results of the studies, • interpreting the results of the studies, • publishing the results of the studies in a credible peer-reviewed Journal

. . . so that ANOTHER group can go through it all again to REPLICATE the study before it becomes “scientifically  credible.”

Processing SPEED is probably NOT the best place to start

Psychological tests can’t measure processing speed

Cognitive processing happens in that black box of the brain – and physical output (including speech) complicates matters, making it difficult to separate causative from coincidental.

ALL those tests can measure is how fast an individual completes
a defined task or cognitive objective.

Human beings speed up and slow down for a whole lot of reasons that may or may not be neurologically based .  Even though it will express neurologically in some measurable fashion, the results won’t be meaningful — reliable as discrete measures that can be generalized and normed.

• Brain Scans can’t measure processing speed

Even if we had instruments sensitive enough to measure the speed of thought throughout the entire brain (and could afford to put them in labs with personnel trained to operate the machinery and interpret the results), we still have a problem.

Despite how rapidly cognitive neuroscience is advancing, we still have relatively little knowledge about the processes that combine to create what we call “cognition.”

We don’t really understand exactly which pieces of the puzzle belong where, connected to which other pieces and in what order —  never mind knowing how to measure the data conclusively enough to determine norms against which anything else CAN be measured.

What we can measure

At this point in time, science can only measure the observable, recordable, duration of an individual task — or how many of what kind of tasks can be completed in a time period.  We extrapolate meaning from what we observe and record.

It is a significant overstatement to conclude that the timeframe
correlates to some measure of “internal” processing speed.

In actuality, what we are really capturing is a measure of processing fluency — the ease with which information (any perceptual stimuli) can be processed by an individual mind.  The task must be broken down further into a number of “domains” to be measured, whose “real world” implications have been, until recently, primarily the province of the disabilities community (including learning disabilities).

A few examples we will explore in this series, along with a few others, are:

  • Retrieval fluency — how quickly and efficiently information can be retrieved from memory
  • Perceptual fluency — the ease with which perceptual stimuli are processed (once considered to be primarily a product of familiarity, which feeds back into the experience of familiarity, which may not be the case)
  • Auditory Processing fluency (or “speed”) — the rate at which a person “decodes” sensory stimuli that they hear (sound waves), able to respond appropriately in an intentional manner
  • Visual Processing fluency (or “speed”) — the rate at which a person is able to respond intentionally to visual stimuli (light frequencies) that their eyes transmit for processing in the brain, which includes decoding, identifying, and interpreting (“tagging” with sufficient meaning to elicit an appropriate response)

Stay tuned – there’s A LOT more to explore about Processing Fluency — on the way to “learning to drive the very brain you were born with” (even if it’s taken a few knocks in the meantime).

AS ALWAYS, if you’d like notification about additional posts in this series (or any other), give your name and email to the nice form at the top of the skinny column to your right. (If you’ve done this for another series, you’re good to go! You only need to do this once.)  Stringent NO SPAM policy.

*ATTRIBUTION & gratitude: 
sick computer thanks
to the generosity of artist/educator Phillip Martin
— link to his amazing website ALWAYS on the skinny column to your right
black box and scientific process cycle graphics courtesy of
Wikipedia, under the Creative Commons License

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

6 Responses to ABOUT Processing Speed

  1. Pingback: Head Injuries – Acquired ADD? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Stroke & Attentional Disorders | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Medical and healthcare professionals need to provide the neuroscientists the proper information. They must listen to patients first. They need to believe them, instead of label them. As long as they are willing to label patients instead of listen they will never believe it is a problem with cognition. Injured and brain dysfunction clients are providing health professionals with what’s happening, but it’s taken out of context.

    The following will sound very far fetched, but maybe not out of realm of possibilities. It’s something to think about and how long we think it will take to resolve brain issues. It’s been so slow to advance, but we can’t even treat so many in need to deal with daily living situations when dealing with cognitive issues.

    I do believe all we are providing will someday be taken seriously. We’re just not there yet. I believe somewhere within the next thousand years or more someone will unravel the brain and it will be great if they can create a memory chip in the brain to store an individual’s memory so if there is an injury it can be repaired by uploading all the information on the memory chips.

    A newborn will have a chip implanted at birth before their first breathe. Hence, the body’s autonomic nervous system functions would also be stored and nothing will ever be lost. This will create a backup to all the learning a brain’s possibilities can ever have. It will resolve brain injuries and other medical problems.

    This might be the best solution for repairing brain injury within the next several thousand years. I guess I’m thinking ahead…and far ahead since everything is based on financial profits instead of helping others and resolution to serious health issues.


    • I like the way you think!

      Reading almost anything here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com lets you know that we are “speaking to each other’s choirs.” I believe there are more of us than we know – and those of us who HAVE been speaking out all along are, hopefully, inspiring those others to speak out as well. We need our “hundredth monkey,” to tip the balance and shift the meme. (The autism community itself FORCED changes – sure would like to see the rest of us follow suit)

      Recent writings on neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to “rewire” itself after injury is encouraging. Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work is inspiring! It is possible for the brain to “recruit” neurons formally specialized for other tasks to remap processing for areas damaged or missing/malfunctioning since birth (vision to the formerly blind, as a dramatic example most vanillas [NTs] can relate to and understand – and even the most die-hard “localization” adherents cannot discount)

      If THAT is possible (and science believes it), then the question quickly moves on to, “How do we remap processes of cognition?”

      Doige (The Brain that Changes Itself) catalogues some of the advances in plasticity neuroscience in a manner that is bittersweet to my mind:

      sweet because SOME scientists and researchers are changing lives formerly thrown in the toilet;

      bitter because science was so STUCK in its perceptions (defending their own work toward the “localizationism” status quo, IMHO, ignoring mounting anecdotal evidence to the contrary in a most “unscientific” fashion) that they discounted amazing work from those in their community (for MANY years), while productive lives of those who could – and SHOULD – have been helped wasted away. (for me, btw, “should” is a dirty word: shaming, so I use it intentionally – and seldom)

      My understanding of some of the latest on glial cells leads me to believe that perhaps we won’t need your computer chip idea. Quite possibly, our memories ARE recorded from birth – we need to understand how to rebuild the connections from the white matter to the grey – AS we remap cognitive processing.

      I lack your apparent patience, however. A quarter of a century, my own time in the field, seems to be my limit.

      I grow more impatient daily — willing, at this point, to throw caution to the winds to shake up the status quo however I can. It’s probably too late to benefit me directly – but it is some comfort to believe that what I do now will change lives in the NEAR future. I want to be alive to SEE it make a difference!

      Thanks for stopping by, for commenting here, for you excellent blog, and for making a difference.



      • I do believe their have been significant advances in research. I also believe so much more could be done or recorded if patients with brain injury were taken seriously.

        Two decades ago it was thought we were born with all the neurons one would have and with injury one would have significantly fewer neurons. I knew this was not true and told everyone, because I kept getting better in many different ways. It was just very slow.

        I will not benefit from any research, but hope the generations to come will. I agree that just helping others to speak out will help make treading these waters easier.

        I would love to leave my brain for research, but not sure how to go about it. On CAT of brain a radiologist decides a small “meningoma”, but neurosurgeon looks closer at scan and puts together injury with calcification from injury.

        I know what I’ve been through and I am 100% certain it is scar tissue (calcification) from injury at cavernous sinus and right internal carotid artery. So if people are depending on CAT scans or MRI for results, they are not accurate either. Thank goodness I was referred to an excellent neurosurgeon in Michigan. Not one healthcare professional in Ohio saw anything! Interesting!

        A spontaneous corneal abrasion prompted CAT scan in OKC, OK while on vacation and it was found immediately. With follow-up in Michigan it was also noted by several healthcare professionals. They need to look to be able to find it. Calcification takes years to develop…so it wasn’t something new.

        I’m happy someone else is willing to shake things up and speak the truth. By doing this I’m certain things will change. We need a many more to help rattle the cage!

        Why is it that thoughts can come together after months, years or even decades when one is least expecting it? A thought one has not even remembered until suddenly awaken in the morning and everything just falls in to place? Very strange, but it’s been happening to me since my injury.

        By all your work, you make a significant difference. You have so much to offer, and I need to spend much more time at your sight. I’m looking forward to some wonderful changes in the future.


        • Waaaaay more could be done – and absolutely MUST be done — but FIRST the science field needs to dump some baggage, “shoulds,” and “political” agendas or they will NEVER be able to learn to listen from belief to anecdotal report (vs. current paradigms – what they prefer to call “evidence”- based).

          Ahem! Who set THAT up? It’s absurd that the experience of a thousand ADDers, for example, is NOT considered “evidence,” in favor of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, replicated & peer-reviewed study of a hundred or so 12 year old boys that IS.

          It is even MORE absurd that, whatever the “evidence,” anybody sane can argue that it makes scientific sense to look straight at even one single human being through that lens and say, “What I’m seeing is inconsistent with the body of evidence in the field, therefore, NOT possible.”

          They simply *must* STOP fortifying alliances within their own community — reminds me of teenage schoolgirls jockeying for position in high school bathrooms, deciding who’s IN and who’s OUT.

          WE must insist that they stop that nonsense by refusing to grant it credibility, even if we lack the resolve to call them on it — so that they can open those closed minds a crack to be ABLE to take the only side that matters – that of the human being with the problem!

          I believe that, somewhere inside, most neuroscientists are *aware* of the primacy of that responsibility – I doubt they started out with the GOAL of genuflecting to the dominant theory of the decade. I think they just get small, start second guessing themselves, and reinterpret what they’re seeing in a way that makes sense with what they are told by the arrogant that they are SUPPOSED to see.

          YOUR experience would have been very different if your Ohio doctors had looked at your situation with a “Wow, this doesn’t seem to fit what we’ve been led to expect, let’s find out why!” paradigm similar to that of Ramachandran, Luria, Merzenich, Kaas, Taub, Rosenzweig, Hebb, Bach-y-Rita, (and others I’ll probably kick myself for leaving out).

          BTW – not EVERYONE was in the dark ages ten and twenty years ago. Credible research was simply disparaged from the bully pulpit. The plasticity revolution COULD have begun as a slow build, starting in the early 1800’s if the science field had taken an open-minded (dare I say “scientific”) look at what Flourens was doing.

          HOW many times was Bach-y-Rita’s paper on motor and sensory plasticity rejected before *finally* being accepted for publication in 1967? Five or six? more?

          NOT that localization memes weren’t useful and significant – BUT, similar to that sanctified flat earth theory, horrific things were done to force everything and everyone to toady the party line and rally ’round its flag, evidence to the contrary be damned.

          Evidence to the contrary? CAN’T be true. Junk science.

          ANECDOTAL to the contrary? KILL the bum!

          In many ways, scientific research is hamstrung by the insistence on their rigid definition of what constitutes a “scientific” study.

          However, as long as we remain capitalism addicts, nothing much is likely to change. Money will remain everybody’s bottom line, and fear of an inability to get funding or access to labs, etc. will lure many to swear that black really IS white, fooling themselves into actually believing their own crap out of “baby needs new shoes” desperation.

          The “end consumer” CAN change that dynamic by making enough noise that the funding fear pendulum begins to move another way. Look at what PETA did to Taub’s career for many years. The same high-visibility pressure dynamic could be employed in a less rabid and more intellectually sound manner too. (well, maybe not the high-vis part – today’s press seems to *prefer* rabidity reportage)

          ANYWAY, if the scientific community hadn’t checked their backbones at their lab doors, had rallied in support en masse, and if it had been possible for Taub to spend those years he spent in court battles putting his rehab ideas into place, how much further along would we be now? Instead, Taub was thrown under the bus – no support. Shameful! WORSE than politicians at the first whiff of any scandal that might rub off, making it tougher to actuate agendas – SO intellectually unattractive!

          But, alas, most people aren’t very brave – and they generally get pretty darned nasty if you have the gall to point out that high school jock bravado masquerading as intellectual courage isn’t REALLY fooling anyone.

          As for Taub, some might shrug and say “All’s well that ends well,” but I’m not signing up for that choir. I am unable to obscure an awareness of the specific by a focus on the general. What about those poor trapped souls who struggled for ALL those years when they could have been helped — and those who died without a chance at lives worth living?

          It didn’t end so well for THEM, did it? (but tell us, Madelyn, what do you really think?)



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