Struggling to come to grips with abstract thinking?
What exactly is abstract thought and how can you improve it?
And if necessary, how can you avoid being too abstract so that others can understand what you’re trying to say?
On this page, we’ll discuss abstract reasoning in-depth.
You’ll also get some abstract thinking exercises that will help you enjoy a powerful mind for engaging with hypothetical ideas on demand.
Because that’s ultimately what abstract thinking skills are all about:
The ability to deal with non concrete, philosophical and even “transcendental” matters of intellectual life.
Not everyone can participate without training, but by the end of this post, you will.
Let’s get started!
What Is Abstract Thinking?
We typically hear that abstract thinking originates with the Greeks.
Plato, for example, talked about how our material world is a shadowy “copy” of a pure and perfect world of ideals.
In this sense, our world is an “abstraction” of the perfect world because “ab” as a prefix means “away from” or “removed.”
“Traction,” on the other hand, means to pull away.
Thus, an easy way to think about abstract thinking is to realize that it is the act of pulling away and removing yourself from a concrete process or idea.
Here’s a simpler example than Plato’s shadowy copy concept.
A Simple Example of Abstract Thinking
Take the word “human.”
In a concrete way, we use it to indicate a person.
But when we “pull away” from the concrete meaning, we can also see that human means:
- Homo sapien
- A collection of biological cells
This list gets more and more abstract as we move from matters of genus and species to the cosmological origins of life.
With this example in mind, you can also think of abstract thinking as exciting purely in the mind.
Nowhere in nature is there a sign that says, “this is a biological cell that belongs to a mammal.” Humans have created such concepts and they exist only in our mental lives.
“Hold on,” you might be thinking. “What about books and videos?”
True. We have created methods for storing our ideas using words that are imprinted on paper or saved in electronic formats.
But how are those recorded ideas brought to life? They only have meaning when a human interacts with them, using a mind trained in abstraction to “translate” the stored words into something meaningful and useful.
A Broader History of Abstraction
Now, I mentioned that typically we think of the origin of being able to abstract ideas as coming from the Greeks.
No doubt they made a huge impact.
After Plato, Aristotle did a lot of work that helped create many of the classification systems we still use to this day for gathering and organizing knowledge.
However, as the scholars of memory Tyson Yunkaporta and Lynne Kelly have shown, indiginous cultures dealt with plenty of abstraction long before the Greeks. Their memory techniques in particular provide great evidence of how prehistoric people “abstracted” ideas from the world and placed them in memory by associating them with objects like the lukasa. They also used processes like Songlines and body parts to help them remember abstract cultural processes.
As more and more scholars learn about the past, we find another definition of the term abstract thinking.
Whereas we used to think the Greeks were the first in a lot of areas, more data helps us think “abstractly” about other cultures and timelines. We are literally removing and pulling away from a territorialized form of thinking and including more history to form a new and more nuanced picture of human development.
The more information we need to consider, the more abstract things become.
More Abstract Thinking Examples
As you can already tell, abstract thinking is more than just one thing.
Here are more examples that I think you’ll find helpful. Each one shows the different contexts in which abstract thinking is useful.
One: Orders of Magnitude
Humans find it difficult to think in large numbers.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky writes in Global Catastrophic Risks:
“Human emotions take place within an analogous brain. The human brain cannot release enough neurotransmitters to feel emotion a 1000 times as strong as the grief of one funeral. A prospective risk going from 10, 000, 000 deaths to 100, 000, 000 deaths does not multiply by ten the strength of our determination to stop it. It adds one more zero on paper for our eyes to glaze over, an effect so small that one must usually jump several orders of magnitude to detect the difference experimentally.”
This leads us to a problem called scope neglect. We make many poor decisions because we don’t spend enough time thinking about how our problems relate to the big picture.
Abstract thinking helps us take more aspects into consideration by understanding what an order of magnitude is and factoring this form of abstract reasoning into the decision process.
We use abstract thinking every time we see a flag.
The Canadian flag is a particularly good example.
It shows a Maple Leaf while at the same time representing a country. It refers to both an abstract concept and a concrete object at the same time.
Everything from traffic lights to literary devices in novels serve as prompts for abstract thinking.
To take one classic example of an abstract symbol, think of when Neo accepts the cookie from the Oracle in The Matrix.
Because Neo’s “online” in this scene, the cookie is a nice gesture on one level. But at the abstract level, he is being “cookied” in the sense of how your device is tagged with identification code that tells advertisers information about your behaviors online.
Metacognition basically means thinking about thinking.
It’s a very important form of abstract thinking. It is literally pulling away from being immersed in your own thoughts so that you can analyze the process of thought itself.
Doing so helps you gain perspective from within and create more space for bringing in the perspectives of others.
It’s a key tool that has been in use for a very long time, and really got rolling with the introduction of ars combinatoria.
As Timothy Perfect and Bennett Schwartz show in Applied Metacognition, metacognition and memory go hand-in-hand.
For example, think of a time when you’ve remembered something about your personal life and asked, “Did that really happen?”
Reflecting in this way draws upon your autobiographical memory. Asking, “is this memory true?” is stepping away to think abstractly about the nature of the truth and reality of your mind.
Metacognition need not be a strictly personal process.
As the authors of Social Metacognition show, thinking about the thoughts of others can help you avoid scope neglect.
How to Improve Abstract Thinking: 3 Abstract Thinking Exercises
Because there are different kinds of abstract thinking, when looking to become a better abstract thinker, it’s important to match the exercises to the goal.
For example, if you want to avoid common human errors that involve thinking, you need to look into cognitive biases.
Or if you want to improve your mathematical imagination for large numbers, you might want to look into Hilbert’s hotel and various exercises teachers have created for expanding your mind using this paradox.
As much as I like learning about those matters to improve my own abstract thinking, here are my personal favorite exercises:
The NIMBY Exercise
If it’s new to you, NIMBY means “not in my backyard.” It’s used when people of a certain class lobby for environmentally destructive processes, so long as they are built far from home.
This abstract thinking exercise involves you writing a simple letter to a community.
Here’s the assignment:
Think of the richest neighborhood you know or can imagine.
Then write a letter you will place in the mailboxes of the wealthiest people convincing them to build a maximum security prison in their own backyards.
This exercise will stretch your abstract thinking because it’s very hard on two levels. First, you’ll need to convince them why maximum security prisons are good and why it would be good for them to be located so close to the homes of the wealthy.
Rules For The Entire World Exercise
Imagine that you are the boss of the entire planet.
You have all the power.
However, in order to maintain this power, you have to create the perfect set of rules that everyone must follow.
The rules must be flawless and treat everyone equally.
In 500-1000 words, craft a document that lays out the perfect set of regulations that everyone will be able to follow in perfect cheer.
This exercise will stretch your thinking because you have to consider the many different personality types and the many ways our personal interests clash with one another.
The Wordless Exercise
We talked about metacognition above. One of the best ways to start thinking about thinking is to try and quiet your mind.
To practice, start by sitting on the floor or on a chair in a quiet place.
Allow yourself to notice all of the words and images floating through your mind.
Practice telling the difference. What’s happening in language and what is pure imagery. Is there any difference? Or do they feel the same?
When you start to get a sense for the difference – or lack of difference – see if you can stop your mental content from flowing.
One way to help yourself in this task is to imagine every image and word that flows on your mind being written as it appears on a large chalkboard.
As soon as they appear, wipe them away.
To practice abstraction, go further than imagining that they have been wiped from this imaginary chalkboard.
Imagine that your mental content has been removed completely from the world.
Keep practicing until all that remains is the “background” of your consciousness itself.
For a simple variation, try something suggested by Byron Katie in Who Would You Be Without Your Story?
To complete the exercise, imagine that you have no past.
This is a lot like the Zen exercise of trying to imagine what your face looked like before you were born.
(Note: This is just an exercise. You won’t actually be erasing anything precious from your past.)
Abstract Thought Is A Tool For Life
Please don’t make these exercises a one time affair.
To really expand your abilities with abstraction, you want to revisit this area of mental ability many times throughout your life.
If you’d like further help, check out the list of better thinking posts on this blog. You’ll find many critical thinking exercises and resources that will keep you engaged for a long time.
And as you’ve seen with the flag example, we think abstractly each and every day. Every icon on your laptop and smartphone involves some level of visual abstraction.
The more you think about the various visual symbols you encounter each and every day, the more you’ll be prompted to that metacognitive level that is so precious for achieving life’s most profound offerings.
And to help you remember to pay attention to the surrounding world, I’d suggest signing up for my FREE memory improvement kit:
It will help you “abstract” your environment and use it as a tool called a Memory Palace. It’s very helpful for remembering all the new things you’ll notice as you improve this level of your mind!