Top-down processing is a concept within cognitive psychology that explains one of two ways in which people process information.
In top-down processing, people use their prior knowledge and expectations in order to ‘fill in the gaps’. We start with general ideas, pre-existing perceptions, and stereotypes, then infer what we are viewing based upon what we expect to see (Groome, 2013).
This approach is contrasted to the bottom-up approach (Angosto et al., 2013), where we start with our base stimuli and interpret our events without reference to prior knowledge or context, allowing us to perform a close and unbiased reading of a sitaution.
Here are definitions of both concepts:
- “[top-down processing] is the processing influenced by the individual’s knowledge and expectations rather than simply by the stimulus itself” (Eysenck & Keane, 2005)
- “[bottom-up processing] is processing based on the applications of processing rules to the data present within the stimulus in a way that does not depend upon previous expereince” (Groome, 2013)
Top-Down Processing Examples
- Reading: The most common example of top-down processing is that of reading, where we don’t tend to read each letter of a word. Rather, we scan over words and sentences to infer overall meaning. When we read, our brains often fill in gaps, and scan for reading rather than pausing on each letter, comma, etc. This is why we can still read text that has typos, and in fact, we’ll often miss the typo altogether because our brain simply repairs the typos in real-time, seeking out what it thinks should be the correct word.
- Perceptual Set: A perceptual set is a set of things we choose to perceive, or focus on, in a given situation. Implicitly, it also means we choose to ignore other data in a process called selective attention. For example, when driving a car, our minds decide that our job right now is to focus on data inputs out the front windscreen, ignoring the kids fighting in the back seat. This is an example of top-down processing because your perception is influenced by your expectations of the situation.
- Visual Illusions: Visual illusions in images are great ways of demonstrating how top-down processing affects our perceptions. Sometimes, we’ll see a picture and one person will see a duck and the other person will see a bunny rabbit (see this image), or one person will see a young lady looking away and another will see an old woman facing left (see this image). What’s happening here is our brains are looking for familiar data and trying to fit it into a cohesive image, meaning what we notice is influenced by the ideas or ‘schemas’ in our minds.
- Face Recognition: Even if a face is partially obscured or poorly lit, we can often still recognize the person because we’re using top-down processing to fill in the gaps. Our brain relies upon stored knowledge about the person’s distinctive facial features in order to infer what the parts of the face that are obscured would look like, allowing us to recognize the person’s face.
- Listening to Music: When we listen to a song that we have heard before, we often anticipate the next lyrics before they are played. Here, we’re anticipating what will happen based upon prior knowledge and context, not just the notes we are currently hearing. Similarly, if the musician misses a note or makes a mistake, you may end up overlooking it because you’re going to fill-in that mistake with what you’d think should go there.
- Understanding Accents: When conversing with someone who has a strong accent, you may not catch each word accurately. However, by using top-down processing, you can infer what was said. If they’re talking about beaches, then you might assume that they used the word “sand”, even though you didn’t hear the word clearly. Here, you’d be using a concept called conceptual priming, where the word ‘beaches’ has a range of associated terms, which your mind is more willing to bring up, based on the context.
- Smell and Taste Perception: Smell informs taste. When you smell something delicious, you’re anticipating a certain taste – a positive smell means you’re anticipating a positive taste experience. Interestingly, scientists have found that food tastes different to people when they can’t smell it compared to when they can. Here, it’s apparent that the perception of flavor is influenced by our sense of smell. The same goes with color, where we have discovered that a food’s color will affect our perception of how we taste it. Here, top-down processing is occurring, where our anticipation of taste affects the taste itself (Sakai, 2020).
- Phantom Limb Sensation: This occurs in individuals who have had a limb amputated yet continue to feel sensations as if the limb was still there. This is a form of top-down processing because the brain is filling in the expected sensation based on past experiences, even without current sensory input from the missing limb.
- Autocompleting Sentences: While listening to a speech or reading, we often predict the end of the sentence based on the context and our past knowledge. This prediction is an example of top-down processing where our brain uses prior information to make sense of incoming information.
- Watching a Blurry or Pixelated Video: If you are watching a low-resolution video, your brain often fills in the details that aren’t present to create a clearer image. For instance, you may recognize a poorly-defined face in the video because your brain uses prior knowledge about the person or about faces in general to complete the picture.
- Proofreading: Experienced proofreaders or editors often spot errors not just by reading every word carefully, but by understanding the overall context of the sentence or paragraph. If a word or phrase doesn’t fit the context, they’re able to identify it as a potential error. This is an example of top-down processing.
- Identifying Objects in Dim Light: If you’re in a dimly lit room, you might still be able to identify objects around you, not because you can see every detail, but because your brain fills in the gaps based on your previous knowledge about the room layout or the shapes of different objects.
- Understanding Speech in a Noisy Environment: When you’re in a noisy environment, like a crowded restaurant or a party, you might still be able to follow a conversation because your brain uses top-down processing to anticipate and fill in words that might have been masked by background noise.
- Reconstructing Memories: When we recall past events, we don’t always remember every single detail. Instead, our brains often fill in gaps with details that we think are likely to have been true. This is why people’s memories of the same event can sometimes be different.
- Interpreting Abstract Art: When we look at abstract art, we often try to find a meaning or narrative in the image, even when the image doesn’t represent anything specific. Our brains use top-down processing to bring in our own experiences, knowledge, and emotions to make sense of the abstract image.
- Navigation and Map Reading: When you’re navigating a route or reading a map, you’ll often use your understanding of the general area or landmarks to fill in details that might not be clearly mentioned in the directions or represented on the map. This is an instance of top-down processing at work.
- Detecting Camouflaged Objects or Animals: Spotting a camouflaged creature or object in nature can be a challenge. If you know what to look for, such as the shape or pattern of the creature, you’re more likely to find it. This involves using top-down processing as your brain applies your previous knowledge to interpret the incoming sensory information.
- Interpreting Emotions in Written Text: When we read a piece of text, we often intuitively understand the emotional tone, such as sarcasm, humor, or anger, even though these emotions are not explicitly conveyed by the words themselves. This understanding comes from our previous experiences and knowledge of language, an example of top-down processing.
- Deciphering Poor Handwriting: If you’ve ever had to read a doctor’s handwriting or a hurriedly written note, you may not be able to understand every letter. Yet, you can often make sense of the overall message by using context and your understanding of language, a testament to top-down processing.
- Interpreting Coded Language or Slang: If you’re familiar with a particular coded language or slang, you can understand phrases or words that would seem nonsensical to others. Your brain uses top-down processing to apply your specific knowledge to decode the meaning.
- Understanding Implications: Often, in conversations or written text, ideas or sentiments are implied rather than explicitly stated. We use top-down processing to infer these implied meanings based on the context and our knowledge of language and social cues. For example, if someone says, “It sure is warm in here,” you might understand they’re hinting at wanting the window open or the air conditioning on.
- Recognizing Objects at Different Angles: Even if we see an object from an unusual angle, we can typically still identify it. This is because we don’t just rely on the sensory input we’re currently receiving. Instead, our brains use our previous knowledge of what the object looks like from various angles to identify it – a clear example of top-down processing.
- Seeing Objects in the Dark: When it’s dark, and we can only make out vague shapes and shadows, we often still can identify objects or surroundings. This is because our brain fills in details based on our knowledge of what those objects and our environment look like in the light.
- Listening to a Familiar Song in a Foreign Language: If you’re listening to a version of a song you know well but in a language you don’t understand, you may still follow along or anticipate the melody and rhythm. This is a case of top-down processing as your brain uses prior knowledge to predict the flow of the song despite not understanding the lyrics.
- Interpreting Emojis or Text Speak: With the advent of digital communication, emojis and text abbreviations (like LOL, BRB, etc.) have become an integral part of our language. We can understand the emotions or meanings conveyed through these symbols because our brain uses top-down processing. It applies our learned knowledge of these symbols to interpret their meanings in the context of the message.
Top-Down Processing vs Bottom-up Processing
|Top-down processing||Bottom-up processing|
|Definition||“Processing influenced by the individual’s knowledge and expectations rather than simply by the stimulus itself” (Eysenck & Keane, 2005)||Processing “the data present within the stimulus in a way that does not depend upon previous expereince” (Groome, 2013)|
|Examples||Reading sentences for meaning, without reading each individual letter (Bekaryan, 2016).||Running your finger a word and breaking down every single letter to sound it out (see more examples of bottom-up processing here).|
|Strengths||Leads to efficiency, allows us to make informed estimations and guesses, helps us to predict outcomes (List, Du & Lee, 2021).||Prevents mistakes and errors, allows for open-minded readings of data, highly beneficial for academic research (Ardini, 2015).|
|Weaknesses||Leads to errors when we impose our expectations on stimuli rather than allowing the stimuli to guide our thinking, leads to confirmation biases (List, Du & Lee, 2021).||Is extremely time-consuming, and fails to use context and prior knowledge to infer meanings (Ardini, 2015).|
|Theories of Perception||Schema theory, Predictive coding, Conceptual priming||Information processing theory|
Top-down processing is an essential skill for speeding up or work, achieving efficiency, and even making predictions before things happen in order to prepare. But it also has weaknesses, as it’s essentially a type of heuristic that leads us to make decisions without parsing all the data and interpreting it on its own merits, without prior knowledge of context. While this skill is essential, it’s also essential to know when to implement a bottom-up processing approach, or better yet, combine the two in what’s often called parallel processing.
Angosto, A., Sánchez, P., Álvarez, M., Cuevas, I., & León, J. A. (2013). Evidence for top-down processing in reading comprehension of children. Psicología Educativa, 19(2), 83-88. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S1135-755X(13)70014-9
Ardini, S. N. (2015). Top-down and bottom-up processing in listening. Which one is problematic?: A case of Universitas PGRI Semarang. ETERNAL (English Teaching Journal), 6(2).
Bekaryan, L. (2016). Developing Learners’ Top-Down Processing Skills in Listening. Armenian Folia Anglistika, 12(15), 74-82. Doi: https://doi.org/10.46991/AFA/2016.12.1.074
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2005). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Groome, D. (2013). An introduction to cognitive psychology: Processes and disorders. London: Psychology Press.
List, A., Du, H., & Lee, H. Y. (2021). How do students integrate multiple texts? An investigation of top-down processing. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 36, 599-626.
Sakai, N. (2020). Top-down processing in food perception: Beyond the multisensory processing. Acoustical Science and Technology, 41(1), 182-188.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]