How Do We Think?

Hhhmmm…where does this piece fit? No, not there. Maybe if I flip it over? No, that’s not right. What about here? Nope. What the heck is this a picture of, anyway? Argh! I’ll just smack it down and make it fit!

Ever try doing a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final product should look like? You’d do a lot of guessing, trying to fit pieces together without much guidance. You might even use your memory of how you did puzzles in the past to see if that helps at all.

Believe it or not, sometimes your thinking process works like this. It’s the “bottom-up” approach. You start with information from your environment and try to make sense of it through logical reasoning and memory.  You rely on this way of thinking when you don’t have a lot of experience or you’re trying something new.

Picture yourself driving a car. (Sports car? Pickup? SUV? Smart car? Your choice.) Pretend you’re a new driver. See that line of cars up there? What do you do? Because you don’t have a lot of experience behind the wheel, you can easily misinterpret what’s going on. You might think that the line will keep moving, so you don’t slow down. Surprise! You come to a screeching halt inches from the bumper of the car ahead of you. Guess they were moving more slowly than you thought. Because you relied on your logical reasoning and memory –both limited in this situation- you make a mistake. Thank goodness for anti-lock brakes!

If all our thinking were done with the bottom-up approach, there’d be way more car crashes, failed exams, hurt feelings and other calamities. Using reasoning and memory works sometimes, but it has limitations. That’s where top-down thinking comes in. You also start with information from the environment, but, in addition, you have a real understanding about what you’re trying to do.  You have experience and know-how, so you make fewer mistakes. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle you’ve done before AND looking at the picture. You’d fly through that thing.

Get back into your imaginary car. Don’t worry, it’s safe this time, because now you’re an experienced driver. As you look ahead, you notice that a line of cars seems to be forming. Based on your knowledge and experience, you have an idea that something is going on up there. (Accident? Construction? Traffic stop?) You don’t know for sure, but you start slowing down in response to your prediction. You approach the line of stalled cars cautiously and see that they’re waiting for a family of ducks to cross the road. (Aw, how cute! No, o not honk at them. You’ll scare the babies!)

Not everyone is an expert at everything (not even your older brother, despite what he says), so everyone uses both bottom-up and top-down thinking. Sometimes you’re sitting there, kinda confused, with a pile of unplaced puzzle pieces in front of you. Other times you whip through the puzzle like nobody’s business. (See, there’s an example: if you have experience with metaphors, you realize that the puzzle represents all the thinking you have to do. If you don’t, you may wonder why we’re still going on and on about the darned puzzle!)