What Is Top-Down Processing? Definition and Examples

Cropped image of woman's eye

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Top-down processing happens when our general knowledge guides our specific perceptions. When we utilize top-down processing, our ability to understand information is influenced by the context in which it appears.

Key Takeaways: Top-Down Processing

  • Top-down processing is the process of using context or general knowledge to understand what we perceive.
  • Richard Gregory introduced the concept of top-down processing in 1970.
  • We use top-down processing to quickly understand the sensory input we take in when we interact with different environments.

The Concept of Top-Down Processing

In 1970, psychologist Richard Gregory introduced the concept of top-down processing. He claimed that perception is constructive. When we perceive something, we must rely on the context and our high-level knowledge to correctly interpret the perception.

According to Gregory, perception is a process of hypothesis testing. He suggested that about 90% of visual information is lost between the time it reaches the eye and gets to the brain. So when we see something new, we can’t rely on our senses alone to understand it. We use our existing knowledge and what we recall about past experiences to hypothesize about the meaning of new visual information. If our hypothesis is correct, we make sense of our perceptions by actively constructing them with a combination of what we take in through our senses and what we already know about the world. However, if our hypothesis is incorrect, it can lead to perceptual errors.

Why We Use Top-Down Processing

Top-down processing plays an important role in our interactions with our environment. Our five senses are constantly taking in information. At any given time, we are experiencing different sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and ways things feel when we touch them. If we paid attention to each one of our senses all the time we’d never do anything else. Top-down processing enables us to streamline the process by relying on context and our pre-existing knowledge to understand what we perceive. If our brains didn’t employ top-down processing our senses would overwhelm us.

Using Top-Down Processing

Top-down processing helps us understand what our senses are perceiving in our daily lives. One area in which this has been demonstrated is reading and letter identification. Experiments have shown that when briefly presented with either a single letter or a word that contains that letter and then asked to identify which letter or word they had seen, participants could more accurately identify the word than the letter. Despite the fact that the word had more visual stimuli than the letter, the context of the word helped the individual more accurately understand what they saw. Called the word superiority effect, this is a useful tool in everyday life.

For example, suppose you receive an important letter but a few drops of water have smeared part of the text. A few letters in different words are now just smudges. Yet, you’re still able to read the letter in its entirety using top-down processing. You use the context of the words and sentences in which the smudges appear and your knowledge of reading to comprehend the meaning of the letter’s message.

Conceptual image with word love in red letters with the V lying face down on the table.
 

If you take a look at the image above you’ll see a word with one letter knocked down, yet you are still able to quickly recognize the word as LOVE. We don’t have to carefully examine the shape of the knocked-down letter to do this. The context of the additional three letters spelling out the word is all we need to understand what we’re reading.

Positive and Negatives of Top-Down Processing

Top-down processing serves a positive function by simplifying the way we comprehend our sensory perceptions. Our environments are busy places and we are always perceiving multiple things. Top-down processing enables us to shortcut the cognitive path between our perceptions and their meaning.

Part of the reason for this is that top-down processing helps us recognize patterns. Patterns are useful because they help us understand and know how to interact with the world. For example, when we encounter a new kind of mobile device, we use our past experiences with other mobile devices to quickly figure out which icons to touch to pull up the apps we want to interact with. Mobile devices generally follow similar interaction patterns and our prior knowledge of those patterns enables us to apply them to the new device.

On the other hand, patterns can also prevent us from perceiving things in unique ways. So we may understand the pattern of how to use a mobile phone, but if the manufacturer comes out with a new phone that employs completely unique interaction patterns, we may not be able to figure out how to use it. That’s where top-down processing can have negative results.

Our knowledge is limited and biased in certain ways. When we apply our knowledge to our perceptions, it similarly limits and biases our perceptions. So, for example, if we’ve always used an iPhone, but are presented with a new kind of phone, our perception may be that the phone's user experience is inferior, even if it works exactly like the iPhone. 

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