When less is more and when more is more: The mediating roles of capacity and speed in brain-behavior efficiency

Bart Rypma, Vivek Prabhakaran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


An enduring enterprise of experimental psychology has been to account for individual differences in human performance. Recent advances in neuroimaging have permitted testing of hypotheses regarding the neural bases of individual differences but this burgeoning literature has been characterized by inconsistent results. We argue that careful design and analysis of neuroimaging studies is required to separate individual differences in processing capacity from individual differences in processing speed to account for these differences in the literature. We utilized task designs which permitted separation of processing capacity influences on brain-behavior relationships from those related to processing speed. In one set of studies, participants performed verbal delayed-recognition tasks during blocked and event-related fMRI scanning. The results indicated that those participants with greater working memory (WM) capacity showed greater prefrontal cortical activity, strategically capitalized on the additional processing time available in the delay period, and evinced faster WM-retrieval rates than low-capacity participants. In another study, participants performed a digit-symbol substitution task (DSST) designed to minimize WM storage capacity requirements and maximize processing speed requirements during fMRI scanning. In some prefrontal cortical (PFC) brain regions, participants with faster processing speed showed less PFC activity than slower performers while in other PFC and parietal regions they showed greater activity. Regional-causality analysis indicated that PFC exerted more influence over other brain regions for slower than for faster individuals. These results support a model of neural efficiency in which individuals differ in the extent of direct processing links between neural nodes. One benefit of direct processing links may be a surplus of resources that maximize available capacity permitting fast and accurate performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-222
Number of pages16
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2009


  • Cognitive control
  • Executive control
  • Functional MRI
  • Human brain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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