What Is Top-Down Processing?

Yuo cna porbalby raed tihs esaliy desptie teh msispeillgns.

Passages like this have been bouncing around the internet for years. But how do we read them? How do our brains so quickly make sense of these jumbled letters? The answer is simple: top-down processing.

What Is Top-Down Processing?

In top-down processing, perceptions begin with the most general and move toward the more specific. These perceptions are heavily influenced by our expectations and prior knowledge. Put simply, your brain applies what it knows to fill in the blanks and anticipate what's next.

For example, if half of a tree branch is covered, you usually have an idea of what it looks like, even though half is not being shown. This is because you know what trees look like from prior knowledge.

Processing information from the top down allows us to make sense of information that has already been brought in by the senses, working downward from initial impressions down to particular details.

Why We Use Top-Down Processing

In a world where we are surrounded by virtually limitless sensory experiences and information, top-down processing can help us quickly make sense of the environment.

Our senses are constantly taking in new information. At any given time, we're experiencing a never-ending stream of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations. If we had to focus equally on all of these sensations every second of every day, we would be overwhelmed.

Top-down processing helps simplify our understanding of the world. It allows us to quickly make sense of all the information our senses bring in. As you begin to take in more information about your environment, your initial impressions (which are based on previous experiences and patterns) influence how you interpret the finer details.

This type of processing can be useful when we are looking for patterns in our environment, but these predispositions can also hinder our ability to perceive things in new and different ways.

Influences on This Process

A number of things can influence top-down processing, including context and motivation. The context, or circumstances, in which an event or object is perceived can influence what we expect to find in that particular situation.

If you are reading an article about food and nutrition, for example, you might interpret a word you're not familiar with as something related to food. Motivation can also make you more likely to interpret something in a particular way. For example, if you were shown a series of ambiguous images, you might be more motivated to perceive them as food-related when you're hungry.

Examples of Top-Down Processing

In order to better understand how top-down processing works, it can be helpful to explore a few examples of this phenomenon in action.

The Stroop Effect

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. 

Interestingly, people are much slower and make more mistakes when the meaning of the word and the ink color doesn’t match. So, for example, people have a harder time when the word “red” is printed in green ink instead of red ink.

Top-down processing explains why this task is so difficult. People automatically recognize the word before they think about the specific features of that word (like what color it's written in). This makes it easier to read the word aloud rather than to say the color of the word.

Typos

You type a message to your boss, proofread it, and hit 'Send.' Only after the message has gone into the nether sphere do you spot three typos in the first few sentences.

If you've experienced some version of this scenario, you're not alone. Most people find it difficult to catch their own typos. But it's not because they're stupid. According to psychologist Tom Stafford, it may actually be because you're smart!

Tom Stafford, psychologist at the University of Sheffield in the UK

When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high-level task... We don't catch every detail, we're not like computers or NSA databases. Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.

— Tom Stafford, psychologist at the University of Sheffield in the UK

Because writing is such a high-level task, your brain tricks you into reading what you think you should see on the page. It fills in missing details and corrects errors without you even noticing. This allows you to focus on the more complex task of turning sentences into complex ideas.

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gregory RL. Concepts and Mechanisms of Perception. Duckworth; 1974.

  2. Stockton N. What's up with that: Why it's so hard to catch your own typos. Wired. August 12, 2014.

Additional Reading