Top-Down Processing: Simply Psychology (2023)

So top-down processing uses contextual information from things we already know or experience in combination with our senses to perceive new information.

In top-down processing, perceptions are interpreted from individual structures that help us perceive and interpret information.

These structures, also known as schemata, are built from past experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, and expectations (Piaget, 1953).

Why do we use top-down processing?

British psychologist Richard Gregory (1970) proposed that the perceptual process is constructive and relies on top-down processing to interpret new information.

He argued that the use of sensory information alone is an insufficient form of perceptual processing, since most of the information (over 90%) is lost between the time new stimuli reach the eye and reach the brain, which requires the use of contextual information from prior knowledge. and experiences to adequately perceive the information.

Top-Down Processing: Simply Psychology (1)

Gregory's Theory states that we use our existing knowledge and the memory of past experiences to form specific hypotheses about the meanings of new information.

Rather than expend vast amounts of energy to perceive each sensation individually, Gregory's theory argues that we combine the use of our senses to interpret new incoming stimuli with prior knowledge and past experience to find meaning.

Influences on top-down processing

According to Gregory (1970), different factors can influence top-down processing, such as expectations, emotion, motivation, and culture. This is known asperceptual set theory.

Context / Experience / Culture

The context or situation in which we previously received the information may influence future expectations when receiving new information in similar circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, previous experiences undoubtedly influence how new information is perceived, since we as humans use the knowledge we gain from previous events to generate expectations of perceiving new information.

Our brains are shaped by the external world, and through context and experience, our perception is also shaped by the external world.

For this reason, the influence of culture on the formation of our perceptions cannot be ignored, since culture creates differences in the contexts and experiences that individuals extract when they perceive new information (Deregowski, 1972).


Motivation can also influence top-down processing, as you may be more motivated to notice things based on your needs and desires (Swets, 1964).

For example, say you're waiting for a phone call to determine whether or not you've been chosen for a recent position you interviewed for, and you hear your phone ring while you're showering, when in fact the phone never did.

This is a perfect example of how motivation can influence perception because your need and desire for the phone to ring with that very important call is so strong that you imagine hearing the phone ring when it isn't actually ringing.

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Top-Down Processing Examples

You can understand how top-down processing works by considering examples of this phenomenon in action.

typographical errors

Top-Down Processing: Simply Psychology (2)

The human mind does not read each letter individually, but words collectively. As long as the first and last letters of the word are in the same place, we can identify the correct word despite the typo.

Goldstein (2018) argues that our ability to understand typos and misspellings is another example of top-down processing because we are actively applying our prior experiences, knowledge, and expectations to correctly identify misspelled words.

stroop effect

The Stroop effect, named after the American psychologist John Ridley Stroop (1935), conveys how interference affects reaction time.

For example, imagine that you are given a list of colors, but the word and the color of the words presented in the list do not match. After studying the list of colors, you are asked to name the color of the words on the list, but not the color of the word itself.

Top-Down Processing: Simply Psychology (3)

While it seems like an easy task at first, Stroop found that participants could easily identify the color of the word presented if it matched its semantic meaning.

When the color did not match the semantic meaning of the word, the participants had to pay more attention to the task at hand.

visual illusions

Necker's cube is a visual illusion of an ambiguous figure created by Louis Albert Necker (1832). The cube maintains perceptual ambiguity through its wireframe design that allows the viewer to interpret the cube as having two different front squares: a top right square or bottom left square.

(Video) Sensation & Perception: Top-Down & Bottom-Up Processing

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According to Gregory, viewers can easily switch between the two orientations because the brain has created two separate hypotheses, both of which are equally likely to be true.

Due to their equal plausibility, the brain cannot decide which hypothesis is true and can continually switch between the cube's visual orientations.

This is an example of top-down processing because the sensory input has not changed since the viewer first saw the cube. What changed was the perception of the cube, concluding that the perception of information flows from the top down, not from the bottom up.

auditory illusions

Phonemic restoration is an auditory illusion that occurs when we hear parts of words that don't actually exist. The term for this phenomenon was coined by Richard Warren (1970), where he sought to explain how background noise seemingly covering specific phonemes within a verbal conversation, humanity is still capable of understanding individual phonemes.

In a nutshell, Warren sought to discover how people can understand verbal communication despite noise covering parts of the words being communicated.

Imagine that you are asked to listen to a sentence and then write down word for word what you heard. However, during the sentence the speaker coughs at the beginning of one of the words, eliminating some phonemes.

The phonemic restoration illusion holds that, despite the speaker's cough, the listener could write down the missing phonemes.

For example, Warren discovered that when he presented the sentence "The wheel was found to be on the axle." and replaced the wh- phonemes with cough, each participant continued to write the word wheel, despite the lack of wh- phonemes.

This is an example of top-down processing, as participants use prior knowledge, experience, and expectations to correctly identify the word despite missing phonemes.

Bayesian approach

It is now clear that human perception does not work in isolation. You cannot rely on your senses or prior knowledge and experience alone to accurately interpret new stimuli.

Instead, Kersten et al. (2004) argue that human perception is a combination of using our senses as well as prior knowledge and experience to interpret new stimuli.

The combination of top-down and bottom-up processing is called a Bayesian approach. The Bayesian Theory affirms that interpreting the ambiguity of the external world requires an optimal decision strategy that allows us the most viable state of the world. This approach argues that this perceptual decision is a careful balance between the reliability of current sensory stimuli and the probability of past stimuli.

We can see the Bayesian Approach in action when we create scenes and objects that are within our field of view. According to the Bayesian approach, our environment is made up of probable structures, and scene properties such as object shape, light, and illumination are nothing more than mere statistical regularities (Kersten et al., 2004).

It is this statistical regularity that allows the brain to perceive more than just current sensory information, but also past information to create scenes and objects within our visual field.

For example, when our brain tries to distinguish shapes from shading patterns, it is our prior knowledge that corrects for this ambiguity in structure.

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Simply put, the Bayesian approach asserts that we can take ambiguous hatch patterns and interpret them as shapes because we've seen a shape similar to the one in front of us before.

Our visual systems use the statistical regularities of an object's shape, light, and illumination to interpret possible conclusions from new information (Kersten et al., 2004). We combine probabilities from past experiences with current sensory stimuli to make sense of what we are perceiving.

About the Author

Victoria Rousay is a current student in the Master's program in Liberal Arts, Anthropology and Archeology at Harvard University Ext. Prior to her graduate studies, Ella Victoria successfully graduated with a B.A. in psychology from Texas A&M University in 2019. She is interested in examining the impacts of preventive education on human rights issues on children and schools.

How to reference this article:

How to reference this article:

Rousay, V (2021, January 21).Top-down processing🇧🇷 Simply Psychology.

APA style references

Deregowski JB, Muldrow ES. and Muldrow, W.F. (1972). Pictorial recognition in a remote Ethiopian village.Perception, 1, 417-425.

Goldstein, EB (2018).cognitive psychology. Mason OH: Cengage.

Gregorio, R. (1970).the clever eye🇧🇷 London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Kersten, D., Mamassian, P. y Yuille, A. (2004).Object perception as Bayesian inference.year Rev. Psychol., 55, 271-304.

Necker, L. (1832). LXI.Observations on some remarkable optical phenomena seen in Switzerland; and in an optical phenomenon that occurs when seeing the figure of a crystal or geometric solid.The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 1(5), 329-337.

Piaget, J. (1953).The Origin of Intelligence in the Child (International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method). Londres: Routledge & Paul.

Stroop, J.R. (1935). Interference studies in serial verbal reactions.Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643–662.

Sweets, J. (1964).Detection and recognition of signals by human observers; contemporary readings. New York: Willey.

(Video) Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Warren, R. M. (1970).Perceptual restoration of missing speech sounds.Science, 167 (3917), 392-393.

Other information

Bottom-up processing: how it influences perceptionPerceptual SetCostall, A. (2017). 1966 and all that: James Gibson and the bottom-down theory.Ecological Psychology, 29(3), 221-230.Theories of perceptionprocessing information

How to reference this article:

How to reference this article:

Rousay, V (2021, January 21).Top-down processing🇧🇷 Simply Psychology.

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What is top-down processing in psychology? ›

For example, a standard introductory psychology textbook provides the following definition: “Top-down processing is how knowledge, expectations, or past experiences shape the interpretation of sensory information” (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, & Halpern, 2016, p. 173).

What is top-down processing in simple terms? ›

Top-down processing is perceiving the world around us by drawing from what we already know in order to interpret new information (Gregory, 1970). Top-down theories are hypotheses-driven, and stress the importance of higher mental processes such as expectations, beliefs, values and social influences.

What is top-down approach simply psychology? ›

Top-down processing is the interpretation of incoming information based on prior knowledge, experiences, and expectations.

What is an example top-down processing? ›

One classic example of top-down processing in action is a phenomenon known as the Stroop effect. In this task, people are shown a list of words printed in different colors. They're then asked to name the ink color, rather than the word itself.

What is an example of bottom-up and top-down processing? ›

“Sensation” is the bottom-up process by which our senses — vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste — receive and relay external stimuli. “Perception” is the top-down mechanism that our brains use to organize and interpret data, which we put into context.

What is bottom-up and top-down processing in psychology? ›

Bottom-up and top-down processing are two different ways of making sense of stimuli. In bottom-up processing, we allow the stimulus itself to shape our perception, without any preconceived ideas. In top-down processing, we use our background knowledge and expectations to interpret what we see.

What is top-down processing quizlet? ›

Top-down processing is information processing guided by high-level mental processes, as when we construct perceptions by filtering information through our experience and expectations.

What is top-down learning example? ›

For example, let's say you want to become a professional musician but don't know how to play an instrument. A top-down approach would be to first learn enough chords on the guitar to play your favorite songs.

What is top-down processing known as? ›

Typically, perceptual or cognitive mechanisms use top-down processing when information is familiar and not especially complex. Also called conceptually driven processing; top-down analysis.

What is the difference between top-down and bottom-up approach? ›

Each approach can be quite simple—the top-down approach goes from the general to the specific, and the bottom-up approach begins at the specific and moves to the general. These methods are possible approaches for a wide range of endeavors, such as goal setting, budgeting, and forecasting.

What is top-down processing in psychology quizlet? ›

Top-down processing is information processing guided by high-level mental processes, as when we construct perceptions by filtering information through our experience and expectations.

What is bottom-up processing in psychology? ›

Bottom-up processing can be defined as sensory analysis that begins at the entry-level—with what our senses can detect. This form of processing begins with sensory data and goes up to the brain's integration of this sensory information.


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