03 Mar 2021
Top down or Bottom Up Thinking?
Today’s workplace presents a significant challenge for businesses. But even more challenging is how we apply our thinking to business problems, and a new approach is now needed here.
Today’s workplaces represent a significant challenge for all of us.
- With more things to do than time to do them, how do we best figure out what we should do?
- With tomorrow to look after as well as today, how do we manage today so we can grab some thinking space about tomorrow?
- With a tendency to get stuck in the detail and to prioritise the urgent, how do we balance the move to action rather than constant reaction?
In a sense all of these challenges are the same; they are about what we focus our attention on. By attention here I am talking about a limited cognitive resource that can easily be overwhelmed and overworked.
Many people in the workplace will relate to being so busy that they hardly have time to think about anything; the need to get things done in a timely manner is so important. Get the work done now and think later when it’s not as busy. Well maybe?
Insights from Neuroscience are revealing that where and how we deploy our attention and focus is a key determinant of how effective we are. Our brains have evolved to help us create meaning from the environment and make decisions about what to do next and it seems we have 2 semi-independent mental systems in order to do that.
One has a vast computing power and is switched on the whole time, working away in the background. This ‘back of the mind’ attention typically comes to the fore when the unexpected happens. Much of this system’s neural wiring lies in the lower and evolutionary older parts of our brain, the subcortical circuitry. We become aware of this thinking when the brain’s uppermost layers, the neocortex are informed from below. Cognitive scientists have called this ‘bottom up thinking’ to describe the workings of the lower brain neural machinery.
In contrast, ‘top down’ refers to mainly mental activity in the neocortex that can monitor and impose its goals on the subcortical machinery. Bottom up and top down act as if there were actually 2 minds at work.
To illustrate what I mean imagine, you are on holiday in Australia and are walking in the Bush. Your gaze goes down to the grass in front of you and you see a snake. You jump back startled; your body feels like you have had an electric shock; already your heart rate is up and your rate of respiration is rapidly increasing.
Meanwhile you haven’t taken your eyes off the snake and something leaks into your consciousness that the snake hasn’t moved; maybe it is dead or sleeping, so you look more closely, and slowly realise that the snake is in fact a stick. A little embarrassed but relieved, you laugh and go and pick up the stick. A few minutes later you can see the funny side and you start to relax a little, but that doesn’t stop you making sure you are scanning the long grass around you as you walk.
A classic and evolutionary fight or flight scenario and it’s easy to understand why that bottom up response is on a hair trigger. In that mode we are responding quickly, instinctively and efficiently to a possible threat in the environment. Later on we are able to use top down thinking to pay attention to assess the real threat and damp down the strong emotional response we have already had.
|Bottom up||Top Down|
|Fast: Responds in milliseconds||Slower|
|Involuntary, automatic and ‘always-on’||Voluntary|
|Intuitive and operates by making associations||Takes effort limited capacity|
|Impulsive and driven by emotions||Able to learn new models and insights|
|Hard wired habits||Makes plans|
|Mental models of the world||Can exercise control and moderation over impulses|
Thinking about thinking
A lot of effort has gone into understanding how much time we spend on top down and bottom up thinking and the relationship between them . Here are some conclusions. For efficiency’s sake, we are heavily relying on our hard wired habits and existing mental models of the world to guide our actions; in most cases we are not even aware of that process until after the decision has been made at a non–conscious level.
If we didn’t do this we wouldn’t have the cognitive resources to function effectively. Imagine if you had to concentrate intensely in order to complete any task, like brushing your teeth or even something more complex like driving your car. Bottom up thinking frees up resources for targeted top down thinking which we may need to deploy when we are learning or having to deal with ambiguity or tackle difficult decision making. You could argue top down thinking has developed to enable us to better deal with change in our environment.
Today’s environment for most of us in the Western World is less about avoiding lions and foraging for food, and more about having to tackle complex and ambiguous situations, manoeuvring our way through a tangled web of different social relationships offline and online.
The danger is cognitive overload; we simply overwhelm and exhaust our top down thinking system. This makes it harder or impossible for us to learn, plan or suppress our emotions or impulses. Exhausted, working late on the laptop, we forget our diet and reach for the Pringles.
If we accept that this might be happening, the only response is to start to manage our top down thinking as a limited and precious resource to be deployed mindfully and not diluted or exhausted by, as Stephen Covey aptly put it 20 years ago, “The thick of thin things” .
Multiply the effect up and start to think about the attention capacity of a whole organisation. What are people paying attention to right now and how are leaders helping people to deploy their attention most productively?