Bottom-Up Processing in Psychology: Examples & Definition

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  • 0:01 Bottom-Up Processing Defined
  • 0:34 Processing Types Compared
  • 2:06 Occurrence of…
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Sarah Collins
Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

In this lesson, you'll learn what bottom-up processing is and review some examples of this decision-making strategy. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.

Bottom-Up Processing Defined

People are generally encouraged to think before acting; however, you may have found that sometimes you make good decisions without thinking about them first. For example, if someone offered you your favorite flavor of ice cream, but it was topped with pickles and hot sauce, chances are you'd be able to turn it down right away without first having to give it a thought (unless you like that sort of thing). The reason you could reject that ice cream without first having to stop and think is because of a strategy called bottom-up processing.

Processing Types Compared

Processing is just a shorter way to say taking in information, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions or taking action. Processing involves the brain, the body, and emotions. There are two types of processing: top-down and bottom-up. Let's look at our ice cream scenario again.

In top-down processing, your brain is active first. You might think, 'How nice. My friend is offering me ice cream, and I would like some. I should take that from her. I wonder what kind it is.' This thought leads to emotions (happy, excited, grateful, curious) and then a response in the body (increased heart rate, smile, arms reaching out).

Bottom-up processing is simply about the process moving in the opposite direction. First comes the response in the body (eyes see the bowl and contents; nose smells chocolate, pickles, and hot sauce; stomach churns; face grimaces; head turns away). This leads to emotion (repulsion, disappointment) and the brain's cognition and directive for action (thinking, 'That's nasty,' and saying, 'No thank you.'). As you can see from the chart below, bottom-up processing starts with the body and ends in the brain.

Bottom-Up Processing Flow Chart
Bottom-Up Processing Flow Chart

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Additional Activities

Bottom-Up Processing Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

Bottom-up processing is also called data-driven processing. This is because we take in the individual elements of an experience and understand the situation from these details. For this activity, do some internet research on a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Prosopagnosia occurs when there is damage to the brain such that an individual can still perceive faces (a nose, a mouth, eyes, etc.) but cannot recognize or differentiate faces of familiar people because only bottom-up processing is functioning correctly. Write 2–3 paragraphs summarizing this neurological disorder wherein bottom-up, but not top-down, processing occurs.

Writing Prompt 2:

Top-down processing is also called conceptually-driven processing. This is because the understanding of an experience comes from previously understood concepts. For this activity, you need to write several sentences with the letters in each word scrambled, except for the first and the last letter which need to remain in the correct place. For example, you could write, "Pysolchogy is an aaminzg and fsacaintnig sbjucet." Were you able to read the sentence, even though the letters were scrambled? You probably could, due to your top-down processing. Your brain understands the scrambled words due to the conceptual familiarity you have with words. Write 3–4 sentences like this and give them to a few friends. You will find that they have little difficulty reading the words, due to their conceptually-driven processing. (The sample sentence was "Psychology is an amazing and fascinating subject.")

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