Mental rust and Sluggish Cognitive Tempo

Returning to competitive chess after a long absence can be incredibly frustrating. (A short absence can actually be helpful, for reasons I am not sure I fully grasp.) 

Gata Kamsky, the aforementioned top-rated player in the US, challenged for the world championship in the 90s but set aside the game and went to law school. He returned to the board and shows flashes of his extraordinary talent and understanding of the game, but appears to lag far behind the world’s best in terms of opening preparation. He also plays very slowly, getting himself into terrible time pressure.

This all feels familiar to me (except of course the parts about talent and understanding). After skipping most of the 90s, I returned with a greatly diminished tactical facility and a general tendency to get WAY behind on the clock. This year, I was essentially inactive from February through mid-June, and now find those symptoms have manifested themselves again.

These things are generally chalked up to “mental rust.” There’s an interesting similarity between this effect and a disorder called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo, a form of attention deficit disorder that commonly displays in symptoms which are the opposite of classical ADHD, according to Wikipedia:

Instead of being hyperactive, extroverted, obtrusive, and risk takers, those with SCT are passive, daydreamy, shy, and “HYPO”-active in both a mental and physical way. Their demeanor is sluggish as if “in a fog” and logically they also process information more slowly. A key behavioural characteristic of those with SCT symptoms is that they are more likely to be lacking motivation…. Those with SCT symptoms show a qualitatively different kind of attention deficit more typical of a true information input and output problems such as memory retrieval and active working memory.

A person with ADHD is likely to have enhanced spatial and visualisation abilities – critical to good chessplaying; those with SCT appear to process logical information very slowly – like Kamsky (and me) running constantly short of time at the board. The “working memory” mentioned above is like computer RAM – it’s the space in your brain where you hold and process a bunch of stuff simultaneously – again critical for chess success.

SCT apparently stems from problems in the prefrontal cortex. I would be curious to know whether research has been done on the physiological basis for “mental rust”, i.e. lack of practice in specialized cognitive activities.


47 thoughts on “Mental rust and Sluggish Cognitive Tempo

  1. SCT is a permanent problem, in as far as my personal experiences are concerned. Someone with SCT would display differences in symptoms after breaks or after considerable experience. It’s a “life-long” disorder, so to speak. In other words, playing chess would always be a problem. SCT patients would exhibit an inability to see the big picture and it wouldn’t matter how much they practice. A person wouldn’t just be great at playing chess for years, then take a long break and be slow at it. They would always be slow at it, and never really get it.

    I tell you all of this because of my own personal experience with SCT and my research of it.

  2. Correction, “Someone with NOT SCT would display differences in symptoms after breaks or after considerable experience.”

    Sorry about that…

  3. Hi James – thanks – not my intention to suggest that rusty chessplaying is exactly like SCT. Just that when you *are* rusty, you show some characteristics that are reminiscent of SCT.

    Interestingly, this post is by far the most popular over the lifespan of this blog due to continual traffice coming in off of Google. That suggests to me that sluggish cognitive tempo is perhaps under-researched and there’s a dearth of public information.

  4. I have a daughter, age 11 who displays all the symptoms associated with SCT. Are you guys doctors? I’m looking for advice on what types of accomodations can be made by her public school next year ??

    1. I am not a doctor. I am thinking that Dopamine, Epinephrine and Norpinephrine deficiencis can also cause low blood preasure. It will go up when she gains weight and she will feel better but then have inattentive without the hypo problem. Check her BP. Just a guess. It happened to me like that. Low BP causes fatigue.

  5. Hi Kelly. No doctors here. (We have a lawyer or two but they mostly won’t admit it.) Hope you can track down some useful information elsewhere – last I looked in Google it seemed to me that good SCT information resources are not as plentiful as you might hope.

  6. Scott, you wrote the article above on SCT? You made a significant error in explaining SCT vs ADHD. In fact, you stated the exact opposite.
    Your statement “A person with ADHD is likely to have enhanced spatial and visualisation abilities – critical to good chessplaying; those with SCT find those abilities compromised.”
    This is incorrect, the actual definition is
    ” Those with SCT have difficulty with verbal retrieval from long term memory, but may have greater visual spatial capabilities”

    Just thought I’d clarify. We have a daughter with SCT, NOT ADHD.


  7. Hi AnneMarie – looks like you’re right. Not sure how I misread that originally. It’s the speed of logical processing that appears impaired (according to wikipedia anyway). I’ll make a correction. Thanks – Derek

  8. So if a child makes straight A’s in school, but cannot stay focused, has little to no motivation, and can be very lazy have this disorder? A lot of what is described here fits my daughter who was diagnosed with ADHD but doesn’t have the hyper at all. She does struggle with staying focused, she does not like reading and scores low on reading comprehension and is horrible at spelling (I know doesn’t make sense with the straight A’s but it’s how it is.). Math on the other hand she is a whiz at! I really want to get to the bottom of her issue before just going in and changing her medication for the third time in one year.

  9. Well, what fun. I found your website and I am intrigued. “Ressemblences” seem related to the popular difficulties with ADD spectrum and other impairments involving executive function in the brain. Voila! fun with another bunny trail!
    FYI about SCT. It is on a contiuum with ADHD at one end and SCT on the other; see also the ressemblence with tortoise and hare. It is also akin to ADD inattentive type, with a few less bells and whistles, if you know what I mean.
    For the record you are accurate with the metaphor of computer processing speeds; it doesn’t mean the computer is broke, obsolete, or inferior, it just means, well, dial up compared to broadband. One could get lost in ressemblences, I am very aware of that.
    I also saw remarks from others on the blog about evaluation and treatment and yes, there is but jump through all the hoops with the screening tools AND clinical evaluation tools AND the developmental history AND the school history. Combined give you a pretty decent starting point as well as benchmarks to measure improvement with the two primary treatment modalities necessary: RX and counseling. Ok well, that was fun. I will visit another day!

  10. I would be very leery of labels. In my life I can tell you I rode the special school bus, started school a year late, and scored a year behind in my age category on a standardized IQ test as a child. I did show strong spatial abilities, i.e. was good at drawing when others drew scribbles. I had to take special math, reading, speech classes etc. through elementary school. As a result of my own intense efforts I eventually caught up with my peers and have probably surpassed many of them. I’m now a CPA. I earn six plus figures. Everyday I treat my brain like something to be bowed before my will and that goddamnit I can be smarter tomorrow than I am today. I believe it all depends on how much mental anguish you are willing to endure. If you’re just going to give up and say oh I’ll never improve, well you’ll probably get exactly that, nothing. I’ll never have the suborbital IQ of a Chris Langan, I realize that, but I don’t believe people are nearly as limited as they think.

  11. About that last post, SCT isn’t related to a low IQ at all. In fact, i have SCT and an IQ of 135. The main symptons are the lack of attention and motivation for doing things which don’t imply any kind of mental challenge. I’ve looked everywhere for medication to keep me a bit more motivated or “awake” but found nothing. Can anyone help me out here? By the way i’m 18 and i’ve had this problem my entire life.

    1. Hi Giovanni, I was diagnosed as ADHD-PI (primarily inattentive) and have been reading about SCT. My psychiatrist, whose views on ADHD seem to be a few years behind the times, has put me on two different ADHD medications: Focalin, which did a lot to give me the mental energy needed to do boring things, and now Vyvanse, which doesn’t seem to work as well (so next visit, I expect to ask him to go back to Focalin). I am a PhD physicist and have been regarded as a bright person all my life, but the primarily inattentive or SCT symptoms have also been with me my whole life. I recommend that you find a doc who will see what Focalin might do for you. Good luck!

      1. Thank you very much Tim! I’m currently living in Italy, although if things go as planned I might finish my SB next year and go to graduate school in the US. I’m writing the name down and will definitely look for it as soon as I get there. Unfortunately pretty much all drugs that somehow alter the state of mind are forbidden here, so I guess I’ll wait until next year to start treating this condition.

  12. Excellent scientific publication on the difference between ADD and ADHD. By the way, SCT is a sub-type of ADD.

    SCT issues are related to under-developed working memory. Your working memory is a scratch pad for holding temporary information required for processing. People with ADD/SCT have a diminished ability to hold and process information. As a result, they fall behind and seem “lazy”,”slow” or as just being plain inattentive. Lack of attention is a SYMPTOM of the underlying cause. Your inability to do things fast enough is conveniently labeled as inattention. For a lay person, such pedantic distinction might look like a play on words, but using the wrong label for your condition can take you down the wrong treatment path and lead to more frustration.

    Best way to treat SCT, is work your brain in situations that use
    working memory. (

    Use prescription pills for severe cases. Otherwise double up on your fish oil pills.

  13. Ive always tried to figure out what the problem was with myself. I walk around with a head that feels like it weighs 200 pounds. My job is sitting at a desk staring at a computer and making calls all day…this is absolute torture for me. I find myself staring at the screen doing absolutely nothing for 10 mins at a time because im deep in a day dream. Im constantly yawning and sometimes zone out so bad i almost fall asleep. I have to literally get up from my seat and walk around. If its not visually stimulating, im not interested…not matter how hard I try.

    During conversations with people I sometimes stumble and cant seem to find the right words. I’ll say something but ill use a wrong word. Its like my mouth moves and my brain shuts off.

    In a public setting, i am shy at first and my natural instinct is to stay quiet, especially when meeting new people…although I’ve been told i am a people person, outgoing, and have great social skills…this is because i force these skills.

    If im ever in a conversation about a particualr subject i find it very hard to retrieve information on that subject…if i read an article about a particular subject and am then asked to explain that article, i will remember very little…unless i am 100% interested and into what im reading.

    my life outlook and motivation are like a rollercoaster…one minute im fine and am motivated to try new things (seek out a new career) the next minute its all doom and gloom and i feel very anxious, almost claustrophobic.

    When i speak i barely use expression…mostly monotone. When people speak to me i have to really try hard to listen to them, because at any given moment i will completely space out.

    The most trouble i have is finding a new career…cant seem to settle on one thing and focus all my energy towards it. One day i want to do this, the next day its that. what i do know is that i need to work with my hands…i need to see what im doing…there needs to be a beginning and an end, task and project oriented. I am not lazy by any means, but if im not interested in what im doing, it will take me longer to do.

    I also do process information slower than i should. i find if someone instructs me how to do something, it will take a long time for me to get it. If i do it myself the first time, i get it right away. Almost like i need to set patterns to remember things.

    Anyone reading this please be aware that I am self diagnosing. i dont know what i have but am realizing its not normal and has to be some sort of learning deficiency. I am 29 years old and have had this all my life, ive just started paying attention to it recently and when i did some research, many signs point to SCT. If anybody shares the same symptoms as what ive just provided, please let me know.

    1. Dom, im just like you. My mind is completely in slowmotion. I think a lot, but in a wrong way because I can’t process well what people are talking to me and can’t process fast a good answer to give them. My memory, long and short, are completely crap. So I look like an idiot when im in a conversation.

      But im not a completely retard, I achieved many important things using my mind, like contests that required creativity or memory. But these things happened just when I could use the “super focus” of ADD. Another way to do good jobs is spending MUCH time thinking about it, like a rumination, I get good output but it take many days.

      Drugs don’t change me, I already taken Ritalin and many SSRIs. They changed just my mood, not my information processing. Nowadays im trying to start with brupopion, to attack my comorbid dysthymia. Maybe it do something to my sluggish mind, I hope.

      If someone want to discuss about it, contact me: resendeATgmailDOTcom

      1. I am a college going student, I am pretty normal, and a good student ,i have a good grasping power. Yet i lack motivation to do anything, I am socizlly withdrawn as well. It dawned on me when i got through the auditions for a competition yet i backed out though i had a good chance to win because i am good at it.

        Are there chances of my being a SCT patient?

    2. Wow! Thankyou Don for sharing your personal thoughts on this-I went on the internet to research SCT trying to find more info. After reading your story-I realized how familiar it sounded. It is an accurate description of me. Especially the part when talking and not finding the right words to describe things. I was trying to find more info for my son who is having a hard time focusing on school, and I realize I have gone thru life ,growing up with the same problem but not diagnosed. Thanks again for sharing-Im relieved that there’s a name and diagnosis-(o:

    3. Thank you for sharing. I can relate to how you feel. I was diagnosed with ADD in middle school. I was given extended time to take tests and a seperate setting. Although I am prepared, I have always been the last student to finish a test, in high school and college.

      Looking back now, I see that the symptoms were always present. My boss and I came to a mutual agreement in two previous jobs because I couldn’t do the work efficiently. Closing the till at the end of the day was so difficult and foreign to me. I struggled doing inventory.

      I struggle significantly to be productive and complete simple summary assignments. My thinking seems to be very much on the surface. It feels as though the neurons in my brain fail to fire unless what I am doing or observing is creative and stimulating.
      I am set to graduate in the Spring, but I am stressing out because I am having a hard to keeping up. I feel like I am falling behind and the pressure to complete school work is always in the back of my mind. Recently, I have had several panic attacks for fear that I cannot keep up with everything.

      I do not feel I reached my senior year in college by accident. I know I am capable, however, I do believe I struggle with something, and I need help and information.

    4. Hey Don i feel the same way. What your saying is exactly what happens to me, sometimes i really just daydream for long periods of time, i feel like i dont want to get up some days or i put of tasks that are just not interesting to me. I also have that problem, when i meet people i tend to shy away, when im in big groups i tend to speak quietly (alot of people say im soft spoken).

    5. you very articulately described what I have experienced all my life. I am a 50 year old female. I self diagnosed myself with ADD ~5 years ago. Been researching sct just recently, and it all seems to aply to me..

    6. Don, after reading your post, Giovanni’s and Resende’s, I can’t help but think that you would benefit from one of the ADD stimulant medications. I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as “ADHD-primarily inattentive”, which is the term that has been used the past few years for ADHD without hyperactivity. I have some of the same problems you do, including the problem speaking at times, and not being able to access memories when I am speaking. Focalin has helped me A LOT (this is one of the ADHD stimulant medications). It has enabled me to socialize more and with a feeling of confidence. I urge you to find a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD as a next step, and ask him/her for an ADHD assessment. Good luck – Tim.

  14. Hi im 25. I think i also suffer from this damn condition and have had it all my life, constantly being told to do things quicker. It takes me much longer to do things than anyone else. I got checked out for learning difficulties in university and my results suggested i may suffer from cognitive dyspraxia and until now i realize its much more than that. SCT describes my problems to a T. I only get half way through my exams (50-60%) and score 45-50%, which makes my grades suffer significantly. The thing is im in know way lacking intelligence. I only got through to university by acing my course work getting 55-80% on the written assignements. Thats because i had weeks to do the work! so i had time on my side. I hope this encourages people with this problem to not give up on education. There is ways round it. You can get extra time in exams if you qualify with learning disabilities. Unfortunatelly though i dont think enough is known about this condition. I find small breaks make a difference and help concentration wen it slows down. What i want to know is. Is there any medications that can help me with this problem? I feel as clever as i am it holds me back and stops me from being the best i can be and it greatly effects my confidence.

  15. I’ve only just heard of sluggish cognitive tempo while googling. I’ve struggled with attention, memory, motivation, and goal planning all my life. I don’t retain anything I read or watch in film. I isolate a lot socially, though when I do get out, people find me to be charming, humorous, adept with language and colorful self-expression. I have trouble recognizing faces. I have good art and design ability and zero self-confidence. I’ve bombed out at most every job, taking too long to learn or not managing boredom and anxiety. I managed to get a masters degree from Smith College, but had no passion for social work. I’m on disability due to these cognitive problems, and accompanying depression and anxiety. This leads to more isolation. I can’t figure out what career shift I could make. I can’t figure out and follow through on steps to other goals like teaching and selling in art/craft directions. I just go in repetitive circles in my thinking, getting inspired, thinking of the small steps to take, then losing any belief in the idea. Stimulants, anti-depressants, I’ve tried them all. Therapy has not helped with this. I don’t need more insight. I wouldn’t wish these problems on anyone, but it’s good to know that I’m not the only one.

  16. I just read about this condition too. I’ve wondered for a long time…what is wrong with me? Why am I so slow? It usually takes me a lot longer to do simple things (at least what most people think is simple), I have trouble remembering things, lack motivation to do anything, have trouble concentrating and I guess I’m very lazy also. I have a lot of other problems in my life and this is only making it worse. I sometimes think that I’m just very stupid or slow…but it wasn’t like that in school. I usually aced all the exams and received good grades. Would love to learn more about this condition and hopefully overcome it.

  17. I have had these problems my entire life. I think that I have extreme SCT, because I am extremely unmotivated to the point where I haven’t much homework in weeks, and I think it might be getting worse. My idiotic psychiatrist (I know that that should be a hyperbole) prescribed an SSRI for me, even though my symptoms don’t align so well with classical depression. My symptoms are an extreme lack of motivation, slow working memory, shyness, a complete lack of concentration, and a lack of experiencing pleasure. These symptoms could be made worse by an SSRI, not better, because increasing serotonin could cause a decrease in dopamine, and I think a deficiency in the neurochemical dopamine is the main problem in SCT. If anyone could help me with this it would be great, because at this rate I will barely graduate high school, and I don’t think I will even be able to get into college, despite my intelligence. I am so devoid of motivation that I am not in any sports and I am in only one club, the chess club. I lose to people who are worse than me at chess because of my lack of care regarding the outcome of the game.

  18. But the one thing that made me question whether I had this is the fact that I scored a 135 on the logical part of a certified IQ test, and only 92 on the spatial part, which is the opposite of what should happen if you have this disorder.

  19. @Trevor Murphy
    MY symptons are exactly the same! I scored 135 in an IQ test and 138 in another and yet my spatial intelligence was below average in both of them… I don’t even try playing chess because I end up saying “fuck it” when analysing every situation so I end up making random moves. The only time I won a chess game was because the other player abandoned the gamee. I really doubt those asshole psychiatrists are ever going to pay attention to our problem, yet it’s nice to share it.

  20. Hello, when you say “Logical part”, do you refer to the so called Verbal part? and when you say Spatial do you mean the so called Practical part? If so I am another sucker looked like around 125+-10 Verbal part, working memory was where I had my top scores, when it came to practical parts I bordered on mild retardness = 80. I think I have the “opportunous avaliability” as seeing everything as “flat”, like there’s no emotional content in objects in the world and I see peoples feelings but can’t feel them (Whether my body physically responds to it I dont know). This can either be Depersonalization/Derelealization Disorder but the outcome however is probably the most commonly untreated symptom in depression, that is Anhedonia. As some writer wrote it’s most likely about dopamine defiency. S.M Stahl PHD refer to it as the “Lack of positive effect” spectra in depression.

    I “ordered” my Psychiatrist Wellbutrin XL and that had me interesting in things. Absurd things like browsing planless in mushroombooks and doing translation from TVshows. But what was noticable from outside was that my focus increased, self esteem improved and so on. One thing the doctors failed to notice was my increased blinking rate which is a indication of inverted parkinsson. Ackording to S.M Stahl Essential Psychopharmacology Rev 3 Wellbutrin is a dopamine reuptake inhibitator in frontal cortex and Striatium (the dopamine central, and probably what causes the shaking in parkinsson. I can witness what I became like when those fuxkers put me on neuroleptic (dopamine-ANTAGONIST, I call them necroleptic from now on, even though it’s sounds a bit flattering by meaning “grabbing hold of the dead). I got wellbutrin as an augmention and wouldn’t it for my allergy I got which could have caused anaphylactic schock and eventually killed me I still would have used them.

    The allergy set in so fast so there was no chance for measuring IQdiskrepencies and so on. But my old interest of programming came alive for a while at least.

    If you can relate in some way and not heard about them, I guess though you should have had by now, then you know my anectdotal story.

    My wishes for a trial of concerta wasn’t granted due to not having diagnosed as ADD/ADHD even though my short 5 day trial proved successful. I am trying to get Provigil out but guess the will disappoint me there too. After that there’s only Dopamine Agonist, High Dose Selegiline (US People have that as transdermal wearing the name EMSAM) probably it will come to Sweden in about 20 years or so. Parnate, the most dopaminergic irreversible MAO-inhibitator there is, Marplan(some places but not here) and Nardil. I don’t know about USdoctors but I hope they are as enlightened as to follow S.M Stahls ordinations.
    Stahls Remeron+Effexor=California Fuel could also be an alternative. Well, I apologize if this letter boils down very much to depression, But if one want’s to deal with Dopamine it’s impossible not to so to say crosslink diagnosis. Either that or Stimulants.
    Dr Bob is a good source btw.

    Best Wishes Martin

  21. Life can be boring sometimes, I don’t think you have a disorder when you are bored with mundane tasks like homework… Especially when you are smart and can’t stand repetition.
    Some people here sound like they have Asperger’s though :P
    My advice; find something you do enjoy and don’t care about what others think of it!

  22. Hey guys,

    I too believe I might have SCT (self diagnosed). I have extreme trouble with reading comprehension and am a very slow reader. When I speak with people I space out and get anxious, and as a result I struggle to keep the conversation going and stumble over words. It’s as if my mind has a very difficult time processing/ interpreting conversational information, and on top of that I have difficulty structuring a logical conversation. I have such a hard time retrieving/recalling past information during a conversation that might be relevant. Basically it’s as if my brain functions in slow motion. This worries me greatly because I wonder if I’ll ever be able to have a normal relationship with someone. But there is hope, 2 solutions that I have found helpful.

    1. The Book “The seven spiritual laws to success” by Deepak Chopra
    This book is great for living a happier life. With SCT, I feel my confidence diminish to almost nothing, Chopra’s take on life really helped me change my perspective on life and gave me a great mental boost. If you are able to better control your thoughts and actions, you create a calm mind, something SCT people don’t have (from my experience). And a calm mind gives way to calmer demeanor, diminished anxiety, and clearer thinking.

    2. This for me is like a night and day treatment. Marijuana (sativa dominant strands). Basically there are two main types of marijuana (sativa and indica) Indica, while nice, makes you very inward focused and is where the term STONED is derived, because that is exactly how you feel on it, you won’t want to move. It is good, but not in social situations. Sativa is energetic. To describe it, it basically makes me feel alive. It’s as if my brain normally runs on maybe 60% battery, I feel sluggish and under stimulated. When I smoke Sativa dominant marijuana, it’s as if my brain goes AHH HA! It’s like a light clicks on inside, I have an inner energy. I remember feeling like, ‘so this is what life is supposed to be like, this is what it’s like to function normally’. While it does effect short term memory (while high), it eliminates all conversational anxiety, I feel immeasurably confident, I can carry a conversation with anyone, although my short term memory is compromised some(Ex. I will forget what were talking about – this doesn’t always happen) I am able to lead a conversation and retrieve information amazingly, making the conversation easy and flowing.

    While I know the second one is a ‘crutch’, it can be useful to implement for some time until you begin to learn what it’s like to have normal conversations with people and progressively get better at it. Also, I don’t like how people use the word ‘crutch’ to describe the use of medication for people with problems like this. All studies point to this condition being linked to some abnormality with neurotransmitters within the brain, would people refer to medication that could potentially help mentally disabled individuals function more effectively as a ‘crutch’? NO. This is a physical condition where our brains don’t function normally, if only others could walk a day in our shoes.

    1. Bird,
      Most of my life, I have experienced the social conversation difficulties you describe. For me, the ADD medication Focalin has made a significant improvement in this area, and also with my abilities to organize and execute plans. I don’t believe it has any effect on memory so it might be an alternative to the marijuana you describe (I’d never heard of the two types before). (One side effect I experience is persistent thirst, but this minor nuisance is easily worth the benefits).

  23. I am in psychiatric nurse practitioner school, I self diagnosed myself with SCT 4 years ago, and I feel everyone’s pain. It is a real disorder, but slow to come to the attention of mainstream psychiatry. I have found that diet plays a HUGE part in the mental “fog” that is so very common with this. Any bit of bread/ gluton makes my brain slow. When I eat no bread and alot of fresh healthy food, my brain functions much better. Exercise is very important too–(once you can get motivated to start it :) I have read that low dose stimulants work better for SCT than higher doses. I have been on the lowest dose of Concerta for 4 years— really works very well. I can actually read a boring article to the end! I will be researching this more as my education continues. I hope to help everyone I can one day— there is no health without mental health!!

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