I had an interesting and humbling experience recently with top-down processing. As a reminder, top-down processing is where our previous experiences come into play when we judge the environment around us. In this particular case, Helmholtz’s theory of unconscious inference is what did me in as my unconscious assumption in my environment was incorrect (Goldstein, 2011).
A few weeks ago my son was invited to a play date after school. Most mothers of a three year-old will agree with me when I say that play dates can be a wonderful distraction in the day. In this case we went to a house we had never been to before. On the drive over I reminded my son about proper manners, to not run in like he owned the place and to remember that the toys are not his and that his friend will be sharing his toys with my son which sometimes this can be tough. I wanted to make sure the visit went well and everyone could enjoy themselves.
What I should have added was a reminder to myself to really look before taking a step. We arrived on time and my son was extremely excited to play with his friend. I grabbed our stuff and we walked to the front door. I was in the lead when we reached the few steps and suddenly I was stumbling and when I caught myself with my hands I skinned them up a bit and the cupcakes we brought over as a “thank you” were no longer cupcake shaped but a giant crumbled mess. What happened? Had I forgotten what the correct height is for steps? We all unconsciously know how to walk up steps without looking at each one, right? Helmholtz could have used this scenario as a nice example of his theory. What I did not look for or correctly judge was the amount of space between the ground and the first step. The house sits on a sloped lawn which caused part of the initial step to be higher on one side and lower on the other and my memory of a step had me automatically lift my foot a certain amount.
While this was an embarrassing situation for me, it also made me wonder how I could not have realized where the actual step was. I know I looked at the steps during the walk to the door but it was as if I were on auto pilot. In a way I was as my past experiences were guiding me as I lifted my foot to place it on where those experiences made me believe the step should be (Lesson 3, Slide 4). Additionally, my attention was shifting around as I was not only focused on my route from point A to point B, but in carefully carrying our cupcakes and keeping my son safe from any environmental dangers that could be lurking around (Xu, J. & Yue, S., 2013).
If my only job had been to get from my car to the front door then I may have been able to pause to see where the first step began. However, there are too many things happening all around us to fully process everything without the use of top-down processing. This one-time situation is now part of my memory so thankfully it has been added to that “auto-pilot” processing that I will use each time I need to climb steps.
Goldstein, E. (2011) Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, Third Edition. Belmont, CA. Cengage Learning
Lesson 3 Perception. Retrieved from online lecture notes from online website, https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/su15/psych256/001/content/04_lesson/04_page.html
Xu, J. & Yue, S. (2013). Mimicking visual searching with integrated top down cues and low-level features. Neurocomputing. 133(1-17). Retrieved from, http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/science/article/pii/S0925231214001131