Top-down processing refers to a cognitive process of processing information based upon prior knowledge and ‘filling in the gaps’.
In this approach, contrasted to the bottom-up approach, our brains make use of prior knowledge to help make sense of new input and organize our understandings of the world (Angosto et al., 2013).
Cognitive psychologists believe that this type of processing occurs when we form our perceptions of the world by starting with a larger concept or idea, and then work our way down to the finer details.
While this approach is valuable for making sense of the world rapidly, it also relies heavily on mental heuristics, where we rely more heavily on expectations and experience for meaning-making, rather than a close examination of the event at hand.
For example, if you’re reading a sentence in a language you’re fluent in, you don’t have to carefully parse each individual letter or word. Instead, you’re likely able to quickly skim the sentence and understand its general meaning thanks to top-down processing.
But at the same time, you’ll likely miss some words or nuanced meanings of the text because your brain does a lot of ‘filling in the gaps’ rather than engaging in close scrutiny of every single word.
Definitions of Top-Down Processing
Top-down processing occurs when a person processes a stimulus by using their prior knowledge and expectations to interpret what they are observing.
It is juxtaposed to bottom-up processing, where you would instead attempt to process and make meaning of a stimulus without referring to prior knowledge or expectations, in order to minimize biases or assumptions that may skew your understanding.
Here are some instructive scholarly definitions of top-down processing:
- “[top-down processing] is processing which makes use of stored knowledge and expectations in order to guide the interpretation of a … stimulus” (Groome, 2013)
- “[top-down processing] is the processing influenced by the individual’s knowledge and expectations rather than simply by the stimulus itself” (Eysenck & Keane, 2005)
A definition of bottom-up processing is also instructive to provide contrast:
- “[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)
From these definitions, let’s proceed to an examination of the advantages and disadvantages of top-down vs bottom-up approaches.
Top-Down Processing vs Bottom-Up Processing
Top-down processing and bottom-up processing represent two approaches to understanding perception and how we interpret sensory information.
Here are their key differences:
|Top-down processing||Bottom-up processing|
|Direction of Processing||Top-down processing starts with a larger concept or idea and works down to the details. It is guided by higher-level cognitive processes and our experiences, expectations, and understanding of the world. For example, if you see a blurry image of an object that you’re familiar with, your brain may automatically fill in the gaps to identify the object based on prior knowledge (Angosto et al., 2013).||Bottom-up processing starts with the details (List, Du & Lee, 2021). It begins with an incoming stimulus and progresses upward until a cohesive representation or understanding is formed. When you see an unfamiliar object for the first time, your brain would analyze its features (shape, color, texture, etc.) before it could identify the object.|
|Dependence on Prior Knowledge and Context||Top-down processing relies heavily on pre-existing knowledge and expectations. It’s driven by cognition and is influenced by our beliefs and expectations. For instance, while reading, we often predict the rest of the sentence based on the beginning and the overall context (List, Du & Lee, 2021).||Bottom-up processing is data-driven, relying solely on the sensory stimuli we receive, rather than our preconceptions or expectations (Bekaryan, 2016). For example, a novel image or scene would be processed from the basic visual elements to a full understanding.|
|Error Tendency||Top-down processing can sometimes lead to errors due to over-reliance on preconceived notions, assumptions, and stereotypes (Bekaryan, 2016). For instance, it could cause us to see what we expect to see, even if the actual sensory data differs.||Bottom-up processing, while typically more accurate in perceiving the raw data, might miss the ‘bigger picture’ without the context provided by top-down processing (Angosto et al., 2013).|
In everyday life, both top-down and bottom-up processing typically work together to create our perceptions and understandings of the world around us.
For instance, when we meet someone new, we use bottom-up processing to take in details about their appearance, while top-down processing may involve using pre-existing knowledge and stereotypes to make assumptions about their personality or background.
Real-Life Applications of Top-Down Processing
For a full list, see my article: 25 Top-Down Processing Examples
- In Reading Comprehension: If we were to read every single letter of every single word, we’d be reading very slowly. Top-down processing is necessary for readers so they can read at speed, by reading for meaning rather than scanning each letter (List, Du & Lee, 2021).
- In Fight-or-Flight Sitautions: When we come across a situation that’s potentially dangerous, we need to use our ‘street smarts’ to react quickly – this requires top-down strategies like inferring context and making judgment calls, instead of taking our time taking information in and systematically analyzing it, by which time we might be in danger!
- Face Recognition: We recognize faces through top-down processing. Even if a face is partially obscured or poorly lit, we can often still recognize the person. Our brain relies upon stored knowledge about the person’s distinctive facial features in order to fill in the gaps of the parts of the face that are obscured, allowing us to recognize the person’s face.
- Having Conversations in Noisy Environments: When we’re talking to people in a noisy environment, it’s likely that we don’t hear every word they say. But we try to understand them by putting together the words that we did hear in order to glean the overall meaning of what they said.
Top-Down Processing Theories and Concepts
1. Schema Theory
In cognitive psychology, a schema is a packed of knowledge about a concept within your mind. We have schemas for all sorts of categories – like ‘furniture’, ‘dog’, ‘gender’ (see: gender schema), and so on (for more, see: types of schemas).
We rely on our schemas – or pre-existing ideas about concepts – whenever we process new information. According to schema theory, we try to fit new information into a specific schema to make sense of it. For example, when you see a dog, you realize it fits in the ‘dog’ schema, which helps you quickly infer that it’s a domesticated animal, not likely to be a threat, and maybe even cute!
Schema theory relies on the idea of top-down processing – we see things in our environment, and we use our prior knowledge to make sense of it.
2. Predictive coding
Predictive coding is a theory of brain function that proposes our brains are continuously creating and updating a mental model of the environment to anticipate the future (Rao & Ballard, 1999).
It suggests that the brain optimizes information processing by constantly generating predictions about upcoming sensory input and correcting these predictions based on error signals it receives. This error signal, or the difference between the prediction and actual sensory input, is then sent up to higher levels of processing to adjust the mental model.
The predictive coding framework has gained substantial empirical support, for example, in studies demonstrating how prediction errors are calculated and propagated in the brain’s auditory and visual processing pathways (Kok, Jehee, & de Lange, 2012; Chennu et al., 2016).
We can see that predictive coding employs top-down processing, because it relies on past experience and prediction in order to make meaning of our world.
3. Conceptual priming
Conceptual priming is a psychological phenomenon where exposure to a concept makes related concepts more accessible and easier to process.
For instance, if you read the word “doctor,” you’re more likely to recognize or complete a related word like “nurse” faster than an unrelated word like “chair” (Neely, 1991).
This priming effect is thought to result from activation spreading among related ideas in our mental networks, making those ideas easier to access.
There is extensive research on conceptual priming, showing that it can occur consciously and unconsciously, influencing a wide range of cognitive processes from perception and memory to social judgments (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000; Schacter, Dobbins, & Schnyer, 2004).
4. Gestalt Psychology
This school of psychology emphasizes that the whole is different than the sum of its parts, asserting the importance of holistic, or top-down processing (Wertheimer, 2012).
The Gestalt psychologists propose that we perceive things as whole units and our understanding of these components exists more than just the mere aggregation of individual elements.
This perfectly ties into the concept of top-down processing. According to top-down processing, our perception isn’t just built upon raw data collected from the senses, instead, our brain uses prior knowledge and contexts to make sense of this sensory information.
This means the cognitive workings, much like the principles of Gestalt psychology, inherently focus on an understanding of the whole, helping us make sense of the world around us rapidly and efficiently.
Hence, Gestalt Psychology underlines the contrast between the intricate parts and the collective whole, mirroring the principles of top-down processing.
Top-Down Processing Strengths and Weaknesses
Top-down processing plays a crucial role in how we perceive and interact with the world. It has many benefits, but also some drawbacks.
1. Benefits of Top-Down Processing
- It’s Efficient. Top-down processing allows us to process information quickly. For example, you wouldn’t want to have to read every single letter of every single word, sound them out, then decide what the word means (Angosto et al., 2013). Rather, you’re better off using your prior knowledge of your native language to infer what a word means from a glance. Similarly, when you meet a bear in the woods, you’re better off relying on your overall concept that a bear is dangerous to make a decision to get out of its way, rather than pausing and focusing on the details of whether the bear appears angry or not.
- Making Sense of Ambiguity. Top-down processing is very useful for processing ambiguous stimuli. For instance, I gave the example above of trying to understand speech in noisy environments. Here, it’s hard to infer specific words because of the noise pollution, but you make sense of this ambiguity by sticking together the words you did hear, as well as reading social cues like tone of voice and posture (Bekaryan, 2016).
- Prediction: We use top-down processing when predicting, guessing, and estimating. For example, if you want to predict how many jellybeans are in a jar, you won’t be able to count every jellybean so you’ll need to rely on prior experiences of guessing jelly beans, or perhaps related experience of assessing quantities, to come to a big picture guess (List, Du & Lee, 2021).
- Understanding Context: Top-down processing aids in understanding the context and can enhance our comprehension of a particular situation, text, or conversation. It helps us see the bigger picture by applying our pre-existing knowledge or understanding of similar scenarios.
2. Drawbacks of Top-Down Processing
- Perceptual Errors: Top-down processing can sometimes lead to errors, particularly if our expectations or assumptions do not match the reality. This can result in misinterpretations or incorrect assumptions. A classic example is failing to notice typos in a text because our brain automatically corrects the error (Bekaryan, 2016).
- Confirmation Bias: Since top-down processing involves using our existing beliefs and experiences to interpret new information, it can lead to confirmation bias, where we are more likely to notice and accept information that confirms our existing beliefs, while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts them (Angosto et al., 2013).
- Stereotyping: Top-down processing can contribute to stereotyping because we often use our existing beliefs about a social group to interpret the behavior of individuals belonging to that group (Bekaryan, 2016). This can result in biased or inaccurate perceptions.
- Resistance to New Information: Sometimes, top-down processing can make it harder for us to accept new information or concepts that don’t fit within our existing understanding or expectations (List, Du & Lee, 2021).
Understanding these benefits and drawbacks can help us decide when to pivote to a bottom-up processing approach, make smarter decisions, and overall mitigate the blindspots and potential negative conswquences of top-down processing.
Top-down processing is one of the essential ways in which we get about our daily lives without being bogged down in details. Generally, it involves focusing on the big picture goals, interpreting information based on prior knowledge, and allowing our expectations to guide our interpretations of what we see. However, we need to be aware of when not to use this strategy, because only then can we successfully switch between top-down and bottom-up methods (or, use a mix, often called parallel processing), in order to both make sense using context and background knowledge and also achieve a thorough and open-minded interpretation of the data before our eyes.
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
Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (2000). The mind in the middle: A practical guide to priming and automaticity research. In H. T. Reis & C. M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (pp. 253-285). Cambridge University Press.
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
Chennu, S., Noreika, V., Gueorguiev, D., Shtyrov, Y., Bekinschtein, T. A., & Henson, R. (2016). Silent expectations: Dynamic causal modeling of cortical prediction and attention to sounds that weren’t. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(32), 8305-8316. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1125-16.2016
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.
Kok, P., Jehee, J. F., & de Lange, F. P. (2012). Less is more: expectation sharpens representations in the primary visual cortex. Neuron, 75(2), 265-270. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.034
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.
Neely, J. H. (1991). Semantic priming effects in visual word recognition: A selective review of current findings and theories. In D. Besner & G. W. Humphreys (Eds.), Basic processes in reading: Visual word recognition (pp. 264–336). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Rao, R. P., & Ballard, D. H. (1999). Predictive coding in the visual cortex: a functional interpretation of some extra-classical receptive-field effects. Nature Neuroscience, 2(1), 79-87. doi:10.1038/4580
Schacter, D. L., Dobbins, I. G., & Schnyer, D. M. (2004). Specificity of priming: a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(11), 853-862. doi:10.1038/nrn1534
Wertheimer, M. (2012). Gestalt theory. Social Research, 11(1), 78-79.
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]