The art and science of abstract thinking

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What is something we only become capable of doing after age eleven, that helps us solve complex problems and write poetry, but needs to be yielded carefully? That’s abstract thinking, a powerful tool for creativity and innovation which anyone can learn how to use better.

The difference between concrete and abstract thinking

Concrete thinking is closely related to experiences that can be directly observed. It involves everyday, tangible facts and physical objects. On the other hand, abstract thinking is a higher-order reasoning skill. It deals with conceptual ideas, patterns, and theories.

For instance, thinking about the Statue of Liberty is a concrete thought, but thinking about what it represents — the idea of liberty — is an abstract thought. Listing the names of everyone on the team who are working on a specific project is concrete thinking, but questioning whether this is the best team for the project is abstract thinking.

Another way to put it is that concrete thinking asks how whereas abstract thinking asks why. In the words of researchers from Tel-Aviv University: “Focusing on the means required to achieve a specific goal ultimately entails transforming an abstract idea into a concrete action and thus primes a concretizing mindset; likewise, focusing on the purpose of an action primes an abstracting mindset.” 

According to famous psychologist Jean Piaget, it is not until around eleven years old that children become able to think abstractly and to use metacognition. Before that age, we are only able to think logically about objects we can physically manipulate. Our ability to think abstractly keeps on expanding as we grow up, but most people take this ability for granted, and very few proactively practice their abstract reasoning skills.

Three concrete ways to practice abstract thinking

It is possible to improve your abstract reasoning skills.

  1. Reframe the question. Go from “how?” to “why?” in order to take a step-back and tap into your abstract reasoning skills. For example, if you feel stuck trying to write a blog post, ask yourself: why am I writing this, who is this for, what exactly am I trying to achieve? This higher-order approach may help you discover a fresh angle to tackle your project.
  2. Look for patterns. Instead of looking at each concrete element in isolation, practice networked thinking to uncover abstract patterns and underlying dynamics in the relationship between those elements. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Sometimes patterns can be hard to detect, but the simple process of looking for them will help you improve your abstract reasoning skills.
  3. Take inspiration from abstract thinkers. Philosophers, artists, and scientists are great abstract thinkers. Like a philosopher, examine the nature of ideas such as success, reality, or community. Like a poet, go from concrete thinking to abstract thinking by using metaphors, simile, analogies, and symbolism. Like a scientist, formulate a theory by going from the particular to the general. Is the concrete event you are currently observing an occurrence of a wider phenomenon? Could you test your hypothesis?

Abstract thinking is essential in order to solve complex problems, come up with innovative ideas, and collaborate with other people. It allows us to analyse situations, understand new concepts, formulate theories, and to put things in perspective.

Without abstract thinking, we would not be able to grasp concepts such as friendship, hope, democracy, imagination, success, wisdom, happiness, or even love. However, while it’s a powerful tool to add to your thinking toolbox, it should not be the only tool, and it should be used wisely.

A balancing game

As with any powerful tool, abstract thinking can be a double-edged sword. First, abstract thinking without concrete thinking amounts to imagination without execution. Creativity requires an ambidextrous mindset which balances exploration and exploitation. Once you have figured out why an idea needs to see the light of day, you need to think about how you will make it happen. In other words, you need to go from abstract thinking to concrete thinking.

It can also be dangerous for your mental health to always default to abstract thinking, especially when thinking about past events. Psychology researchers explain that “abstract rumination is characteristic of depressed individuals, as is the tendency to experience post-decisional regret.” It is particularly true of thinking about traumatic events, where concrete thinking has been found to be much more helpful than abstract thinking.

Despite these caveats, abstract thinking skills are particularly helpful in situations that require thinking outside the box, uncovering hidden patterns, and generating innovative ideas. Just make sure you are balancing it with concrete thinking and monitoring your thought patterns so abstract thinking doesn’t turn into abstract rumination.