Abstract thinking is the ability to think about things that are not actually present. People who think in an abstract way look at the broader significance of ideas and information rather than the concrete details.
Abstract thinkers are interested in the deeper meaning of things and the bigger picture. Is your abstract thinking above average?
What is abstract thinking?
Perhaps the easiest way to explain abstract thinking is to compare it with its opposite – concrete reasoning. Concrete thinkers are more comfortable with what exists right now. They like things that are clear and tangible and that they can hold in their hands. Concrete thinkers like to follow instructions and have detailed plans. They hate anything that is fuzzy or ambiguous. They do not usually ‘read between the lines’.
A concrete thinker will probably like lists and spreadsheets, but they are not always great at being spontaneous and ‘going with the flow’.
Conversely, abstract thinkers think about how everything relates to the bigger picture. They are always looking for the deeper meaning or the underlying patterns in things. Abstract thinkers want to understand how everything relates to everything else.
They are very curious and love to work with complex ideas. They may enjoy subjects that use a high degree of abstract thought, which includes subjects as varied as astrophysics and poetry.
Abstract thinking is closely linked to symbolic thinking. Much of our society and culture rely on being able to use symbols to express ideas. For example, the Statue of Liberty is not just a statue, it is a symbol of freedom. Even language itself is abstract as we use words as symbols for objects, ideas and emotions.
How we use abstract and concrete thinking
Of course, most of us use a mixture of concrete and abstract reasoning at different times and in different situations. No one could get through life relying on only one way of thinking. Everyone needs to use abstract thought in order to make plans for the future, understand complex ideas or park our car. We also all need to use our concrete thinking to do the more practical tasks in life like checking if we need milk.
However, for most people, one type of thinking dominates. This will be the type of thinking they feel most comfortable and happy using, while using the opposite type of thinking may be more of a struggle.
Everyone uses abstract thinking at times. When you were a child, you counted on your fingers. Now you don’t need your fingers because you understand the abstract idea that numbers represent the amount of whatever it is your thinking about.
Having said that, this type of thinking comes more easily to some people. These types have abstraction as their dominant thinking strategy.
7 signs you may be an abstract thinker
- You spend a lot of time thinking about big questions such as ‘what is the meaning of life?’ or ‘what is the nature of consciousness?’
- You are constantly wondering and asking why. As a child, you probably drove others a little crazy with your endless questions.
- You don’t like doing things unless you can see a good reason for doing them: ‘just because’ won’t cut it.
- You hate to follow step-by-step instructions and would much rather work things out for yourself.
- You don’t like routines and get easily bored if you have to do the same task over and over again.
- When thinking about something new, you often link it to something you already know, even if they seem to be unrelated ideas.
- You are great at coming up with metaphors and analogies and linking ideas together in new ways.
How to improve your abstract thinking
Businesses and colleges often test this way of thinking so it is wise to sharpen yours if it does not come naturally to you.
If you want to improve your abstract thinking, there are books of exercises you can try. Developing your math skills can also help as math is an abstract way of thinking. Trying to find patterns in statistical data can also increase your ability in this area.
Learning about subjects that it is not possible to understand in a concrete way is another way to develop your abstract thinking. Subjects such as quantum mechanics and astrophysics require us to think in an abstract way.
Working on building your ability to use metaphor and analogy can also develop this way of thinking. Reading and writing poetry can be a good place to start. Visiting a gallery that features modern art can help you to develop a more symbolic way of thinking too.
Overall, having a balance of thinking skills can help you be ready for all kinds of situations, so this is a skill worth developing.
Are you an abstract thinker? How do you think it helps you in life to think this way?