The Difference Between Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking
By: Julia Thomas
Updated February 04, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
The brain is a complex organ, and how it creates and processes thoughts is just as complicated. No one has the same way of thinking. What we think about and how we think about it all depends on the person.
With that being said, there are still some primary types of thinking that we can divide thoughts into. The main two are concrete and abstract, and we're going to break both of them down for you.
What Is Concrete Thinking?
Have you ever met someone who seems to take everything too literally? They may be more of a concrete thinker. Concrete thinking focuses on what is physically around you. Concrete thinkers see a physical object and just think of what's in front of them. They may see their surroundings, but not think of what is beyond their viewpoint.
A concrete thinker may take words literally. If someone tells them to break a leg, they may wonder why they should snap their leg bones in two. If someone tells them it's raining cats and dogs, they may wonder why they can't hear a cacophony of barks and meows outside. Ok, maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but you get what we’re saying.
This is why it's called concrete thinking. Concrete doesn't bend. It stays put. It's there. It's purely physical. A concrete thinker, fittingly enough, may not even understand the comparison and think you're referring to someone who thinks about what cement turns into.
Who's A Concrete Thinker?
Young children learn to first view the world as concrete thinkers. This makes sense, as babies and toddlers are all about the here and now, and don't think anything of the object when it's gone. That's why you can tell them that you have their nose and they believe you.
As the child grows, so does their way of thinking. They think of objects that are not in front of them, known as object permanence. More abstract thinking slowly develops throughout childhood. They learn about people's emotions and soon realize how complex people can be. Later on, as they learn to read, they'll learn metaphors and be able to understand philosophy, math, and other concepts that require abstract thinking skills, which we'll talk about later.
Additionally, most animals are concrete thinkers. They see an object in front of them, and when it's gone, they usually don't think anything of it. There are some animals, such as our primate relatives and elephants with their fantastic memories and capacity for emotion, that can think more abstractly.
There are mental disorders that can make a person think more concretely. Most people do have some form of abstract thinking, as thinking in only literal terms is a serious social impairment. It's more difficult to associate and relate when you think of everything very specifically, have difficulty empathizing with or understanding others, can only see what's in front of you, and so on. Brain damage and injury can make someone think more concretely as well. Genetics, of course, also plays a role.
What Is Abstract Thinking?
Abstract thinking is part of what sets us apart from most other animals. As you can probably tell from the definition of concrete thinking, abstract thinking is when someone can think about things that aren't physically in front of them. You can think of an object that you just saw, think philosophically, keep a set of principles in your head, and so on.
Abstract thinkers use analogies and metaphors to understand the world. They can read body language and generally are able to identify both verbal and nonverbal social cues. They can see the space difference in an object and envision what it looks like behind it without having to rotate the object. They're critical thinkers, science-minded, and can often reason quite well.
Who's An Abstract Thinker?
As mentioned before, children become more abstract thinkers as they age, and it's usually the last stage of their mental development, known as the formal operation stage. The age this happens usually occurs between preteen and mid-teen years, but it can vary. Some children may develop it much earlier, while others might later.
Nature Vs Nurture?
While the complexity of the human brain is one of the reasons we're abstract thinkers, it's also believed that abstract thinking is a product of the world around us. As children have different experiences, read different stories, receive education, and learn to empathize, their thinking grows. They may be exposed to both simpler fairytale stories, like a frog turning into a prince, or more complex stories with themes, lessons, and nuances. There are stories where the good guy is all good, and the bad guy is all evil, but there are also stories in which the protagonist does questionable things while the villain is more sympathetic.
It's safe to say that abstract thinking is a mix of our complex minds and the world around us.
Abstract Thinking And Intelligence
Someone who thinks more abstractly is able to do better on standardized intelligence tests. Abstract thinkers are better with grasping language and communicating, can see what's not there, and understand concepts that are important to humanity's development. Most of our modern inventions would not exist if there were no abstract thinking.
Other Forms Of Thinking
Thinking is not purely binary; abstract and concrete are just two of the main types of thinking. There are other types of thinkers as well, with many of them being an offshoot of abstract thinking.
As the name implies, a creative thinker is one who thinks of new ideas and makes them come to life. Everyone is creative in their own way, but a creative-minded person will take it a step further and try to make their ideas a reality, instead of just thinking about them. These include artists, writers, actors, and so on.
An analytical thinker can unpack a concept and separate it into different parts, and then look at each part individually while linking it back to the main concept. Analyzing people and concepts can be quite a useful skill, as you can often see what others miss.
A critical thinker can learn to think carefully about what they're looking at. Someone who is less critical may share dubious information while thinking it's true, while a critical thinker is going to look at that information and try to figure out if it's genuine. Critical thinking involves other traits, such as reflecting, reconstructing, and looking at factors other than what’s directly in front of them. It's a complex way of thinking, and we could do a full article on it alone.
This is an offshoot of creative thinking. You're looking at different solutions to a problem to find the one that will work the best. You may look at facts, apply the solution and see where/when it works, and even try to look at less likely solutions as well. It's when you think outside of the box to put a concept into a metaphor our abstract thinkers can understand.
This is when you can take a large number of perspectives from different people or sources and connect them together. You'll find common ground, and you may end up realizing that there is a solution lying somewhere in the middle.
Also known as sequential thinking, this is when you can process information in order. If you've heard of a solution that requires a step-by-step solution, being a linear thinker will work wonders. They don't stray away from the instructions in front of them.
Also known as holistic thinking, this is when you can see the entire picture in front of you and see how everything connects. You don't go from point A to point B, but instead see all the points in front of you and know their relationship. While being a linear thinker has its uses, sometimes nonlinear thinking can create some brilliant concepts.
How To Think More Abstractly
Very few people are total concrete thinkers. It's a spectrum. The average person who is already largely an abstract thinker could learn how to become even more so. One way to do so is to talk to more people. Learn their perspective and try to empathize with them. As the cliché goes, you walk a mile in their shoes. This is why many people who travel to other locations and cultures tend to have an easier time with abstract thinking, as they’ve exposed themselves to many new ideas, perspectives, and ways of life.
If someone you know is struggling with abstract thinking and would like to improve or broaden their thinking, a licensed mental health professional can help all types of people.Though depression is not technically curable, it can impact the ability to think abstractly; a therapist can help with this, too.
If you want to improve your thinking, why not speak to a counselor? They can help get into your mind and tell you how you think, what you can do to think better and make you more aware of yourself. Whether in person or online, there is a counselor to help you.
Online therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy, with 98% of BetterHelp users reporting making significant progress in their mental health journeys. Therapy is a useful way to help shift thinking patterns from more concrete to more abstract. Conversely, therapy has been found to be effective in shifting to somewhat more concrete thinking patterns in individuals with depression, as sometimes abstract thinking can worsen depression symptoms.
One of the primary benefits of utilizing online therapy is that you can utilize it anytime, anywhere – there’s no need to worry about taking extra time or money to commute to an appointment. Additionally, it’s still a fully personalized experience – when starting out with BetterHelp, you’ll complete a questionnaire to determine what type of counseling you’re looking for, your specific concerns and needs, and then you’ll be matched with a therapist who is likely to be a good fit. You can, of course, choose any therapist that you wish, even if they’re not among the ones initially recommended by our algorithm. You can then choose whether to have sessions via video chat, text, phone call, voice recordings, email, or any combination thereof. Continue reading to find reviews of some of our licensed therapists from those seeking help in shifting their thinking patterns.
“Alicia has been such an empathetic listener and challenges me in each sessions (in a good way). She has the ability to re-frame my own thinking to make it all make sense and then guides me towards positivity in all discussions. I always end each session with a sense of calmness. She also checks in regularly which is such nice encouragement throughout the weeks. Absolutely one of the best!”
“Shirley has been fantastic. She's offered me great different perspectives and ways of thinking that have helped me let go of negative thinking and geared me towards more positive thinking about myself and my future.”
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