Top down or Bottom Up Thinking?

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 do we focus our attention on.  By attention here I am talking about a limited cognitive resource that can easily be overwhelmed  and over worked.  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?

Neuroscience & Leadership

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 sub-cortical circuitry.  We become aware of this thinking when the brains upper most layers, the neo-cortex 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 sub-cortical machinery.  Bottom up and top down act as if there were actually 2 minds at work.

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 brains upper most layers, the neo-cortex 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 sub-cortical 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 its 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 millisecondsSlower
Involuntary and automatic and always onVoluntary
Intuitive and operates by making associationsTakes effort limited capacity
Impulsive and driven by emotionsAble to learn new models and insights
Hard wired habitsMakes plans
Mental models of the worldCan excercise control and moderationover impulses

Thinking about thinking

A lot of effort is currently going on to understand how much time we spend on top down and bottom up thinking and the relationship between them .  But it is already possible to draw some conclusions. For efficiency 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.

Attention Capacity

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 off line 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 lap top, 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?