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In this lesson, you will learn to define top-down processing. Two examples will be provided to help you better understand the concept as it applies to everyday situations. Following completion of this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Top-Down Processing

Throughout the day, each of us is exposed to a potentially limitless number of sensory experiences. Just stop wherever you are right now and take a moment to really attune your senses to the environment around you. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, there are multiple sights, sounds, smells, textures, and (if you’re eating) even tastes, all flooding your senses and, subsequently, your brain as we speak.

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In psychology, these two separate systems are commonly thought of as sensation and perception. Sensation involves bringing in information through the five senses, and perception is how our brains make sense of that information.Psychologists often refer to the way in which our sensation and perception systems work both separately and together as processing.

In general, when it comes to processing in the context of sensation and perception, two types of processing are commonly described, namely bottom-up processing and top-down processing. Let’s take a closer look at top-down processing.

Definition

If you look at a diagram of the central nervous system, you will notice that the brain is literally positioned higher, or on top, of the sensory systems. Therefore, higher-level cognitive processes, such as thinking, are considered to be at the top of the sensation and perception process. On the other hand, lower level brain structures, such as those involved in the sensory systems of vision, touch, or hearing, are considered to be at the bottom.Top-down processing refers to how our brains make use of information that has already been brought into the brain by one or more of the sensory systems.

Top-down processing is a cognitive process that initiates with our thoughts, which flow down to lower-level functions, such as the senses. This is in contrast to bottom-up processing, which is the process of the senses providing information about the environment up to the brain.

Examples

Let’s look at a couple of everyday examples that will help you better understand the concept of top-down processing.If you ever sat around a fire roasting marshmallows as a kid, then you might remember the first time you learned about the power of fire. No doubt at some point, curiosity got the best of you, and you got a little too close. It didn’t take long for the pain to travel from your skin to your brain and for your brain to tell you to get back. That process is essentially bottom-up processing.

What about the next time you sat next to the fire? Top-down processing hopefully helped you perceive the fire as hot and helped you avoid having to learn that lesson all over again. Your brain knew from experience that the fire was hot, and you may have even briefly felt the heat of the fire as if it were really burning all over again. The higher-level processes of thinking and memory came into play. Even though your sensory systems were available to let you know that fire hurts, in case you touched the fire again, thanks to top-down processing, you hopefully avoided repeating a bad experience.Another (less painful) example of top-down processing in action involves your favorite movie. Go ahead and think of your all-time favorite movie. I bet that you can recite the entire movie line for line and replay every scene in your head, even though it might have been years since you have seen it.

Your eyes have taken in the visual images and your ears have taken in the sounds of the dialogue and music enough times that it has been committed to memory.This ability to replay your favorite movie in your head is possible due to top-down processing abilities. Your thoughts and memories can re-create the movie in your head, which for the most part can be just as satisfying as actually seeing it. We don’t need to rely on our senses to provide us with the sights and sounds of the movie, we only need to rely on our higher-level cognitive abilities and we can watch that movie as often as we like.

Lesson Summary

Sensation and perception are two processes that allow us to have an awareness of our environment and make sense of what we are experiencing.

Top-down processing involves higher-level cognitive functions, such as thinking and memory, which allow us to utilize information that has previously been taken in by our sensory systems. Top-down processing allows us to avoid the need to re-experience things over and over again. Using top-down processing, we can apply information from past experiences to current situations.

Learning Outcomes

Measure your ability to complete these tasks after viewing this lesson:

  • Provide a description of sensation and perception
  • Express an understanding of top-down processing and detail the ways in which we use it

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