What is Top down Processing?

This blog post will explore what Top down processing is and what affects top down processing. 

We will also briefly discuss why we use this form of perception, where we apply it, and what are the positives and negatives of top down processing. 

What is Top down Processing?

Top-down processing refers to the cognitive process by which our brains make use of information that is already present in the brain by various sensory systems to interpret new information. 

Top-down processing starts with our thoughts and usually moves down to our lower levels of functioning such as our senses. It ultimately means to send down information that has been stored due to prior experiences to the sensory system as it perceives new sensations to make sense of the new senses and stimuli. 

Through this process, an individual is able to make a plausible hypothesis about what the stimulus is or what it means without having to spend time analysing every facet of the stimuli to understand it. 

This cognitive process makes use of contextual information of what we already know or have already experienced and combines it with what we are experiencing in the present and make interpretations and develop perceptions.

These perceptions add to a schema or a framework constructed from past experiences, prior knowledge which is then used to perceive the world, others, oneself, and other external stimuli. 

The concept of Top down processing was introduced by psychologist Richard Gregor who claimed that the way we perceive things is usually constructive and replies on context and prior experiences to interpret new information. 

According to this psychologist, perception is mostly testing of a hypothesis that involves us using our existing knowledge, what we remember and recall of past experiences to hypothesise what we are perceiving so as to make meaning and understand what it is that we are looking at, or sensing from our sensory system. 

Top down processing allows us to limit the potentially limitless experiences that we come across on a second to second basis. It can help us to streamline the millions of sensations that we are feeling as well as to make sense of the novel experiences that we might come across on a day to day basis. 

It is through this cognitive process of taking what we already know and bringing it down to our sensory system to make sense of what we are smelling, seeing, tasting, touching, hearing that we are able to simply the world around us and make perceptions with which we further interpret our experiences.

What affects the process of top-down processing?

Some of the factors that influence the process of top-down processing include:

Context

The context, or circumstances in which the stimuli- the event or an object- appears and is perceived, can influence the way we perceive and understand the stimuli. 

For example, if the stimuli such as a shadow is perceived in a situation where one is feeling fear and a threat to their survival, they might understand the shadow as something to be afraid of or something dangerous. 

Another example can be, when you are reading something related to construction and you come across an unfamiliar word you might just interpret the word as something related to construction. 

Motivation

Motivation can also make it more likely for one to interpret something in a particular way. For example, when you are hungry and motivated to seek out food to satisfy your hunger, you might perceive ambiguous pictures and objects as food. 

Why do we use Top-Down Processing?

Top down processing is an automatic process by which we make sense of the world around us and our experiences.

We often use this without realising that we are using this processing in the way we make sense of our own interactions and it also influences the way we interact with the world. 

Top-down processing is what enables us to streamline the sensory inputs we get from our five senses based on the context, our motivation, and our knowledge that we have already gained out of experiences to perceive and understand the stimuli so that we are not continually overwhelmed by external stimuli. 

Thus it can help us to quickly make sense of the environment by simplifying our understanding of the world. As one begins to take in more information from the five senses, our understanding can further influence our perceptions of the world in general in a more finer way and thus broaden our understanding and hence influence future interactions. 

Where do we use and apply Top down processing?

Some of the applications of Top down Processing that is used in various contexts include:

The Word Superiority Effect

This involves reading and letter identification where brief exposure to a single letter or word can lead people to identify the word accurately with less visual stimuli.

For example, suppose you receive an important letter but a few drops of water have smeared part of the text; however you are able to use the context of the words and sentences and your knowledge of reading to understand what is being written.

 The Stroop Effect

Another example of top-down processing is a phenomenon known as the Stroop effect where people are shown a list of words printed in different colours and are then asked to name the ink colour, rather than the word itself. 

It is often observed that people tend to make more mistakes and are usually slower in identifying the colour because people automatically recognise the word first rather than the colour which makes it easier to say the word out loud instead of the colour. 

Typos

This is another example that is seen in our everyday lives where you type a message that has words that have been misspelt; however, due to your experiences and understanding of the context and the words themselves, you are able to identify what is being said and most probably the receiver will also understand what is being said. 

This is because reading and writing are usually high level cognitive tasks due to which your brain has been wired to lead you to read what you think you should be seeing and thus, fills the gaps or corrects the typos so as to help you make meaning. 

What are Positives and Negatives of Top-Down Processing?

Some of the positive functions of Top Down Processing includes:

  • It can help us simplify our perceptions of sensory inputs in situations where the stimulus is in a busy place, with multiple stimuli that are affecting what we are perceiving.
  • It helps us to make use of a cognitive shortcut between what we perceive and their meaning based on our prior experiences and knowledge. So instead of it being a trial and error situation in making sense of stimuli that is new, we can give it meaning based on what we already know. 
  • It helps us to recognise and identify patterns which inturn can help us understand and interact with the world. For example, patterns of communicating with different types of people and identifying these patterns to communicate and maintain relationships effectively is due to our top down processing. 
  • It can help us adapt to changes. For example, due to technological advancement there have been many changes and we encounter new mobile devices. However, because of our gradual exposure to these technologies, we can make use of our prior experiences and knowledge to make use of these divides. 

Some of the negatives or cons of Top down processing include:

  • Top down processing that relies on identifying and understanding patterns can prevent us from perceiving things in new and unique ways. One of the negatives of top down processing can be understood in the case of negative experiences. 

For example, One might consider negative experiences with a dog who bit them and use this perception of the dog and generalise it to all dogs and develop a phobia.

  • Adapting to newness and changes can also become difficult when we are unable to adapt to new interaction patterns and new patterns in general.
  • We might become biassed due to our past experiences, and our knowledge is limited. This bias can  impact our ability to experience the world for what it is and instead, our subjective perception can cause hurdles and challenges along the way.

Conclusion

This blog post has explored what Top down processing is and what affects top down processing. 

We have also briefly discussed why we use this form of perception, where we apply it, and what are the positives and negatives of top down processing. 

FAQ related to Top-down processing

What is a real life example of top-down processing?

A common example of top down processing that can happen in real life is as follows:

You might come across a flyer that has been exposed to rain and still be able to read most of the words on the flyer because of your familiarity with the words. This is entirely because of our ability to use top down processing. 

What is top-down vs bottom up processing?

Top down processing is our ability to process and understand new information based on prior knowledge and experiences that we are already familiar with. It allows us to make conclusions and understand new information based on what we already know. 

Whereas bottom-up processing refers to the process where we use our sensory information from the external world to build up perceptions that we use to make sense of new and current information.

What is top-down processing in listening?

Top-down processing in listening involves us making use of what we know, our knowledge, and the knowledge of the context and situation to develop an understanding of what is being said.

It is the process by which we use our knowledge of situations, contexts, phrases and sentences, to understand what is being heard or said by someone else.

Who invented top-down processing?

Top down processing as a process by which we build perception was first proposed by Richard Gregory who explained that past experience and prior knowledge help us make inferences and understand new information. 

References

Vinney.C. What Is Top-Down Processing? Definition and Examples. ThoughtCo. 21st July 2019. Retrieved on 27th December 2021. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-down-processing-definition-4691802

Kendra. C. Top-Down Processing and Perception. VeryWell Mind, 29 December 2018. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-top-down-processing-2795975

McLeod, Saul. “Visual Perception Theory.” Simply Psychology, 2018. https://www.simplypsychology.org/perception-theories.html

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