What is top-down processing?  What are examples of how top down processing is used in everyday life?

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At any given moment, our senses are being bombarded with sensory data. Consider sitting in a typical classroom. Not only are you watching your teacher write notes on the board and listening to her lecture, but you also must filter out a lot of sensory information in order to focus on the task at hand: the smell of pizza that your neighbor brought in, the conversation happening in the hall outside, the flickering lights in the back of the room, the sound of the guy behind you clicking his pen over and over, and so on. Thus, your brain must determine how much of this sensory data it needs to handle at any moment in order to operate at its best capacity.

Richard Gregory determined that your brain effectively handles this work because it can function in top-down processing. It thus takes the sensory data it receives (most of which it eliminates from processing from the start), combines that with information already stored there based on similar prior experiences, and comes up with a hypothesis about what the sensory data indicates.

Consider a typical drive to school or work. As you cruise along your typical route, you suddenly see a string of brake lights in front of you and your foot hits the brake as you think "There is a wreck ahead." You have not seen the actual wreck. You are observing many other things at this moment: your own speed, the cars passing you, road signs, the people at the bus stop. But your brain filters out they key information you need: Brake lights right in front of you. Based on other driving experiences, your brain makes a hypothesis, filling in missing visual information, based on this visual data you do have, and you react accordingly.

Another example is the Necker cube (you can search for this online) which is a three-dimensional cube with one side shaded in. As your brain seeks to make visual sense of this orientation, it will flip your perception of the shaded side forward and backward.

Top-down processing is one way to consider how your brain discriminates and processes the many tasks laden with sensory stimuli each day.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 12, 2019
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Top-down processing is the cognitive process through which our brain uses information that has been brought into the brain via one or more sensory systems. Top-down processing begins with thoughts and flows downward to the senses; it is initiated by a larger concept, idea, or object and works from the general to the specific. It can be either conscious or unconscious. It is influenced by context (what we expect to find in a given situation) and motivation.

An example would be you driving down a street in a city you are not familiar with. As you are driving, you see a sign for a restaurant which is missing several letters. Despite this, you are still able to read the sign. This is because top-down processing uses your existing knowledge to make an educated guess about the sign's contents. 

Another example would be the Stroop effect, in which color words are printed in other colors (the word "blue" printed in pink ink, the word "white" printed in green ink, and so on). The mind is slower to interpret the color of the word than the word itself because people automatically recognize the word before thinking of the color. 

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Top down processing sensory (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound) input into large chunks of infomation. In top down processing perceptions are formed based on our previous experiences beginning with the largest idea or concept and gradually working towards the finner details.

For example, it is easier to read messy handwriting in a sentence than trying to read one word because the sentence provides a context for processing the handwriting. See how you go from larger to smaller in the sentance. It might be very difficult to identify a single letter, but easier in the context of the whole sentence.

  • The hmaun mnid uses top down prconiessg to read, as it does not read every leettr by ietslf, rthaer the wrod as a wlohe. As lnog as the fisrt and lsat ltreets are in the crceort plcae it dseon't maettr what oredr the lettres of a wrod are in. You can siltl raed it!

The human mind uses top down processing to read, as it does not read every letter by itself, rather the word as a whole. As long as the first and last letters are in the correct place it doesn't matter what order the letters of a word are in. You can still read it!...That is top down processing at work!


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