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Blog / Bottom Up Vs Top Down Processing

Bottom Up vs Top Down Processing

Written by Nassim on Jul 30, 2022

We all learn differently. Some people prefer to start at the beginning and work their way through, while others like to tackle the biggest, most challenging tasks first, which creates an ongoing set of research and argument in psychology. Also, there are two critical concepts when it comes to studying psychology: bottom up vs top down processing. What are they, and how to distinguish these two? Let’s take a look!

Bottom Up Processing Explained

Bottom-up processing theory was developed by psychologist E. J. Gibson, who set a solid foundation for understanding human perception. Rather than being influenced by learning and context, Gibson considered perception a “what you see is what you get” process and contended that sensation and perception are synonymous.

Gibson’s theory is known as the ecological theory of perception because it suggests that processing can be understood only in interaction with environmental stimuli. The Bottom-up processing he theorized works as follows:

  1. We receive information about our surroundings, such as light levels from our surroundings.
  2. These signals are delivered to the retina. 
  3. These signals transform into electrical impulses that can then be transmitted by transduction. 
  4. Electrical impulses travel through visual pathways to the brain, where they enter the visual cortex and form our visual experience.

This minimalist approach to understanding perception is an example. Bottom-up processing deconstructs perception rather than looking at it holistically, including how sensory information, visual processes, and expectations all contribute to how we see the world.

Real-World Applications

Illusions of Vision

While the two processes are frequently presented as opposing theories, they both play critical roles in perception. The experience of visual illusions, for example, can demonstrate how bottom-up and top-down processes influence how we perceive the world.

You’ve probably seen several visual illusions in which random ink blobs appear to be ambiguous shapes at first but, after a brief moment, begin to resemble a face. These ink blobs would continue to look like random shapes on paper if we only used bottom-up processing.

However, because our brains are wired to recognize faces and because of top-down processes, we are likely to start seeing a human face in these ambiguous shapes.

Brain Damage and Disorders

Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, is a neurological disorder that causes people to be unable to recognize familiar faces, including their own. People experience functional sensation but incomplete perception, while other visual processing and cognitive functioning aspects remain unaffected.

Patients can see familiar faces but cannot recognize them. Bottom-up processing is still functional in this case, but a lack of top-down processing prevents them from relating what they see based on the stored data in their memory. This demonstrates the significance of both processes in shaping our perceptual experiences.

What Is Bottom Up Processing in the Context of Study Prep?

Bottom-up processing can also be a study prep strategy that focuses on mastering the content over practicing test-taking strategies. The philosophy behind this bottom-up processing is that if you know the material inside and out, you’ll do well on your exams, regardless of the format or question types. 

One downside to this approach is that it can take a long time to master all the content, and you may not have enough time also to practice your test-taking skills. Additionally, if you encounter a question on the test that you’re unsure how to answer, you may not have any strategies to fall back on. Nevertheless, some students still prefer this approach as it allows them to focus only on content mastery. In the end, it’s up to you to pick which prep strategy is best for you.

What Is Top Down Processing?

Perceptions in top-down processing begin with the most general and progress toward the more detailed. Our expectations and prior information heavily influence these perceptions. Simply put, your brain uses what it knows to fill in the blanks and anticipate what will happen next.

For instance, if half of a tree branch is hidden, you usually have a good idea of what it looks like, even if the other half is not visible. This is because you already know what trees look like.

Working downward from initial impressions to specific details, processing information from the top down allows us to make sense of information already brought in by our senses.

Why Do We Use Top Down Processing?

Top-down processing helps us quickly make sense of the environment in a world with limitless sensory experiences and information surrounding us. Our senses are constantly gathering new data. We are bombarded with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations at any given time. We would be overwhelmed and burn out after quite a while if we had to constantly focus on all of these sensations 24/7.

Top-down processing comes in handy in the simplification of our understanding of the world. It enables us to quickly make sense of all the information that our senses provide. When you start to learn more about your surroundings, your first impressions affect how you interpret the finer details. This type of processing can be beneficial when looking for patterns in our environment, but it can also limit our ability to perceive details.

The Influences of the Top Down Process

Context and motivation are two factors that can influence top-down processing. What we expect to find in a given situation can be influenced by the context or situations in which an event or object is perceived.

If you’re reading an article about food and nutrition, you might interpret a new word as something related to food. Motivation can also increase the likelihood of misinterpreting something. When you’re hungry, for example, you might be more motivated to perceive a series of ambiguous images as food-related.

Top-Down Processing Examples

To better understand how top-down processing works, consider looking at some examples of this phenomenon in action.

Stroop’s Effect

This is a classic illustration of top-down processing in action. Participants are shown a list of words printed in various colors in this task. They are then asked to color the name of the ink rather than the word itself. Most People are much slower and make more mistakes when the word’s meaning and ink color do not match. People have a harder time, for example, when the word “red” is printed in green ink rather than red ink.

This task’s difficulty is explained by top-down processing. People recognize the word before they consider the specific features of that word (such as the color it is written in). This makes reading the word aloud easier than saying the color of the word.


You type a message to an important customer, proofread it, and press the ‘Send’ button. Only after the message has been sent do you notice three typos in the first few sentences.

If you’ve had an experience similar to this, you’re not alone. Most people have difficulty catching their own typos, but it’s not that they’re less attentive.

According to psychologist Tom Stafford, it could be due to your intelligence! When you write, you’re attempting to convey meaning. It’s a tough task; We don’t pay attention to every detail because we are not machines or NSA databases. Rather, we gather sensory information and combine it with what we expect to derive meaning.

Because writing is such a complex task, your brain tricks you into reading what you expect to see on the page. Then, without your knowledge, it fills in missing details and corrects errors. This allows you to concentrate on the more difficult task of converting sentences into complex ideas.


What Is Top Down Processing in the Context of Study Prep

Exam prep is all about strategies. And one of the strategies you can use is top-down processing. It means starting with the big picture and then breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. So, for example, if you’re studying for an exam, you might start by looking at a study schedule that breaks down the material you need to cover into small, manageable chunks. 

Then, you can create a study plan that helps you fit those chunks into your schedule. And finally, you can make sure you’re staying on track by setting up a system of reminders and checking in with yourself regularly. By using top-down processing, you can make sure you’re making the most of your prep time and giving yourself the best chance to succeed.

Bottom Up vs Top Down Processing in Psychology 

Many students struggle to distinguish between bottom-up and top-down perception processing. Bottom-up processing refers to any processing that begins with the activation of sensory receptors. Top-down processing always starts with a person’s prior knowledge and forecasts based on that prior knowledge. These two process systems interact to make this world sensible for humans. It appears that the two work together more often than not, making it difficult to tell them apart at times.

Driving a car is a good example of bottom-up and top-down processing collaboration. Bottom-up processing is responsible for some of our seemingly automatic reactions while driving. For example, if a deer jumps in front of our car, we will almost certainly try to avoid a crash. We came to a halt after detecting the deer with our visual receptors. This has happened without much conscious thought or prior knowledge. This event appears to have been processed primarily from the bottom up.

What about the traffic light? Is this a bottom-up or top-down process? The correct response is both. To consider this stop sign, you must first visually perceive the familiar octagonal red sign. This initial perception appears to be bottom-up and comes from the environment. But how do we come to know what a stop sign was? When this stop sign is perceived due to top-down processing, we know what action we must take. Again, that is based on our prior knowledge and information.

You need to be able to perceive the stop sign in the environment without bottom-up processing and know what to do with this visual information without my prior knowledge of top-down processing theory. In discussing perception, we know which side of the road to drive on, that green means go, and that all road rules rely on both bottom-up and top-down processes.

Our environment has enough information to make direct sense of the world. The information the environment provides to our senses is all required for us to interact with our surroundings. This assessment appears to be contradicted by the concept of a stop sign. If we were to perceive a stop sign’s shape, color, and so on without any top-down processes taking place, we would have no idea what the sign meant. Accidents would occur as a result of this lack of knowledge.

Instead of juggling both processes separately, the stop sign revelation clarified these concepts. This duality appears to occur quite frequently in our daily lives and is essential to navigating this world.

Top-down processing is when we start with a higher-level concept and use it to interpret the smaller pieces of information. As you might imagine, both approaches have their own benefits and drawbacks. Bottom-up processing is often lauded for its efficiency; after all, it allows us to quickly take in a lot of information. But it might also lead to misunderstandings, as we may misinterpret some of the details we’re taking in. On the other hand, top-down processing is slower. 

Still, it can provide a deeper understanding of the situation, as we’re constantly using our prior knowledge to shape our understanding of the new information. Ultimately, there is no “right” way to process information; it simply depends on the situation and what type of understanding you’re hoping to achieve.


Both bottom-up and top-down processing are essential tools we use to understand the world around us. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of both of these processes and when it’s most appropriate to use them.

We hope this blog post has helped you better understand the difference between bottom-up and top-down processing and how each of these methods can help you in your studies or career.

If you’re looking to take your MCAT Prep further, be sure to check out all of Jack Westin’s MCAT resources, like our free Question Bank, MCAT Diagnostic Exam, and Live Sessions


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