5.8 Attention and Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Processing
Are you a big-picture person or do you get caught up in the details? Explore two ways that you can use your cognitive resources to focus your attention. This lesson provides both the details and the big picture for top-down and bottom-up processing.
Why do we remember certain things but not others? One explanation is that we learn and experience far too many things to remember all of them. Close your eyes and picture someplace you go to everyday. You can probably remember what the place looks like from the outside and where it is. You might also be able to visualize the place next door. Now, try to work your way back home and describe all the places on the way. That’s more difficult isn’t it? You might not remember all of the places in between because you weren’t paying attention to them.
What is attention, exactly? Attention is the ability to focus on specific information. It has two important components. First, you need the cognitive resources to focus on a particular object. Say you’re making dinner while talking to your friend on the phone; you might not have the cognitive resources to devote attention to your e-mail too, even if you’d like to. If you’re trying to remember something, it’s best not to multitask while learning it, because divided attention is difficult to maintain, and it reduces your ability to remember.
Second, even when you have the cognitive resources to focus, attention also involves choice. You don’t always have complete control over the things that win your attention, but when you do, you have to choose where to direct your focus. When you’re driving down a busy street in a big city, you might not have the cognitive resources to take in the sights around you. You would do best to direct your focus on the road in front of you. This ability to focus on certain things while ignoring others is called selective attention. You’re much more likely to remember the things on which you have selected to direct your attention than you are to remember things you have not selected. You didn’t focus on all of the places you passed on your drive home, so you don’t remember them.
But how do you decide which items to pay attention to and which ones to ignore? When you’re driving down a busy street, the road is the obvious answer. But for less straightforward situations, psychologists have determined two general ways in which you make this decision – top-down and bottom-up.
One way is through bottom-up processing where you begin by examining small details and piece them together into a bigger picture. When you first arrive in a new city, do you initially drive around and remember the street names, slowly building a map in your head? Do you plan a route to your final destination by connecting the dots between all of these interesting places that you check out? If so, you’re using bottom-up processing.
Another way you can focus on things is called top-down processing and it’s driven by previous knowledge. With this method, rather than beginning by noticing small details, like street names, you start with expectations from looking at a map, and direct your attention toward details that might fulfill your goal. So, instead of just memorizing all the street names, you’re looking for specific ones that will lead to your destination. Say, on a return trip to that city you look at a map to select a route based on the fastest way to get to your destination. With top-down processing, previous knowledge tells you what information to look for.
The downside to top-down processing is that starting with the big picture sometimes prevents you from noticing unexpected details. So, you might miss that new restaurant or the festival that’s happening downtown. With this kind of thought, you only look at details that are important relative to your overall goal.
To summarize, the things you remember are dependent on your attention. In order to focus your attention on something, you must have the cognitive resources to do it, and often, you must choose where to direct your focus. Choosing what to focus on is called selective attention. When you employ bottom-up processing to make these choices, your attention is caught in the details. Top-down processing begins with the big picture and relates details to it.