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 relies 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 you’re 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

  1. 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?’
  2. You are constantly wondering and asking why. As a child, you probably drove others a little crazy with your endless questions.
  3. You don’t like doing things unless you can see a good reason for doing them: ‘just because’ won’t cut it.
  4. You hate to follow step-by-step instructions and would much rather work things out for yourself.
  5. You don’t like routines and get easily bored if you have to do the same task over and over again.
  6. When thinking about something new, you often link it to something you already know, even if they seem to be unrelated ideas.
  7. 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?

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This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. bs

    Quite interesting and inspiring.

    Love its contents and the purpose.


  2. DivineSpirit

    Thank you …:) peace

  3. Rohit Tambday

    Wow what a article…

  4. PNO

    This article is sharply on point. The 7 steps is accurately describe. I am an abstract thinker working to balance concrete thinking. I am looking forward to reading similar articles. Perhaps one on developing concrete thinking would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Melissa

      I, also, am an abstract thinker (from childhood) and had a very hard time learning how to think in the concrete. At the age of 65 I still (if I am weak or ill, bored, etc) revert back to the abstract.

      Coming from a family of eight concrete thinkers I thought that there was something wrong with me.

      To Sam: Yes, you are different…but don’t let that that stop you! I advanced within the Postal Service to the point of training Postmasters and being recruited by the Postal Inspection Service. You CAN learn to think like other people, and then you have EVERY advantage because you can think in both ways.

      To Amee: You are absolutely correct!

      To Ashlee: Why on Earth are you on this site!

      To PNO: Yes, there should be some help. It took me many years and with no guidance at all. I was amazed to learn, at the age of 50, that Socrates taught his students how to think in the abstract. In comparison with a concrete thinker you are Way ahead of the game. But yes you do need to need to know how to think like they do. I takes time and comes in stages,but when you master it, you win!

  5. Raph

    This is scary accurate…

  6. MyGIG

    …this is scarily accurate. Thank you!

  7. Ashley Rauh


    Oopps, I accidentally posted my comment when clearly I hadn’t finished it. I’m super nervous and excited, I’ve only been doing art for a year and its funny cause I never did any kind of art in my life not even as a hobby let alone making a small business from doing it. I was run over by a drunk driver when i was 21 yrs old and I’ve never been the same since. Not only was it extremely hard to deal with the physical, and emotional pain and then all the up’s, down’s and marry-go-round’s of depression and severe anxiety but also coming to realize I need to figure out what I want to do for a career all over again. One day my boyfriend says to me “Ashley, you dont get paid to just sit around and look pretty. So enough is enough quit thinking and just DO!” from there on it must of meant to be because for the life of me I still cant remember how and I started into the whole painting thing and that was only a year ago… Life is beautiful, crazy, amazing, scary, intense, and complex yet simple. If you show her love, she will love you right back and even stronger.

    Ashleysart1.net will be ready in a week or two, hope to see you there!


  8. Amee

    Abstract thinkers are our own home entertainment center, because we think about how to think in possibilities, innovation and imagination.

    I can zone off into my own world , and especially do this when I might have to face a boring task.

    I don’t relate to concrete thinkers and wonder why they need so much distraction or they become bored.

    Thinking means you’re never alone.

  9. Sam

    Thanks a million times. I thought I had problems with the way I think but I can that I am just different.

  10. Ken Thornton

    Thanks for this article on abstract thinking. I looked this up after seeing a program on PBS about Neanderthals and how they were creative in tool making ( Abstract thinking) i became curious and looked it up and realized I am an abstract thinker I believe being dyslexic when young in school, i adapted to learn in an abstract Style. Thank you very much your article

    Blessings from the U.S.
    Ken Thornton

    1. Bob

      Do you have attention deficit (hyperactive) disorder or ADHD? How was it that you overcame your dyslexia and how did it present itself. My dislexia was so bad you could read it in the mirror which I’ve found out to be not that common, whole sentences written backwards was apparently pretty serious case of dyslexia. I was also diagnosed with ADHD at 6. The school told my parents if he was not put on medication he’ll have to attend a special needs school because I was so disruptive to other students. The other reason being I just wasn’t learning, i couldn’t concentrate long enough to learn the basics, no amount of discipline would improve my focus, and my parents and teachers were very strict, so no one can blame
      So I started taking ritalin after kindergarten, and moved to a new school to repeat the first year because I hadn’t learned anything. I also remember having this amazing lady work with me one on one reading kids books with upside down letters which cured my dislexia (I’m skeptical about the the real catalyst and how much was cured by time, medication, or upside down book lady or mixture of a few)

      In less than a 2 weeks I had the highest grades in my year, I won multiple spelling bees (also study linguistics, “take that dyslexia!”) I even got voted school captain in my final year of primary school , and excelled at all my subjects. People always talk about whether you’re a maths or a English guy but I felt I was both equally, for different reasons. Science was my favourite but unfortunately I had some bad science teachers and therefore cared less, like ok, youre a nice guy, you’re eccentric and jovial , and you love telling stories but I’ve heard this same story 10 times and no one says anything because no one wants to be that guy who cancels the free periods but what made me crack was that after 10 months of being his student, he still couldn’t remember my name. I couldn’t help it, my anger took over and basically told him he can’t teach for shit and that no one’s cares about watching your diving video for the 100th time. I stormed out of the class room with my legs shaking and regret of what have I done? I absolutely broke that man, he came out really upset and I could see tears starting to well,, as he passionately made his case that he does it for the kids. I could see and hear the passion in his voice.. I was expecting him to send to the principal’s office and never look or talk to me again (which wouldnt have been any difference) but he instead pleaded with me about how much he cares about his students and only wants them to have fun. The desperation in his voice really got to me and I always felt so bad about questioning his livelihood. The next class we had he walked in and didn’t say a word, didn’t crack a smile. I thought nothing of it at the time until he started writing on the black board (had never seen him do it) … He’s doing this because o what I said!? I couldn’t believe it, he was trying so hard to be a good teacher he basically just did the opposite of what he usually did. It was painful to watch because I knew what I said had basically made him depressed. The good thing is that he had a bad memory and eventually forgot all about it and went back to talking about all the awesome places he’s been scuba diving. I didn’t care if he didn’t know my name, I was just glad he was happy again.

  11. Michelle Lovato

    Abstract = Faith
    Would you agree?

  12. me

    faith in what?

  13. PermReader

    I search for the controvercies between the sociality and the abstract thinking. A human alone can`t discuss his abstract thinking and makes it trivial and shallow one. Ancient Greeks created science – a product of the permanent discussions. No one non Western civilizations created science, though the big discoveries in some branches of the knoledge `ve been made.

  14. CAPsract

    Abstract can only be faith in crude form – a faith is like a one step journey – lack of metacognitive rigor if its meant only to serve one purpose aka lacking perspectives. Abstraction is stripping away things to its core parts then you can put parts together to form new ones. It is like a pump. When this is reached you can build the new one. It can get further and further away from reality in recursive manner. Anyway, it can be even serve you concretely if you can do this while taking in reality. Being few steps ahead so to speak and I do not really mean chess necessarily (especially since it involves lots of memorization and other abilities) since abstraction can be applied in different contexts like in math or even with human relationships.

  15. Margaret Phinney

    I began looking up the meaning of abstract a few days ago when I decided to write book about my world. That is when I came up on all of this other stuff I never knew anything about, including abstract thinking. Now I know why I have a hard time getting along with some people and bond with others. This makes sense to me more than just having similar likes and dislikes, we have the same thought processes. It goes with the saying, great minds think alike. It explains the ease I have with the way I paint. I paint from my emotions and thoughts more than anything. I believe I would be considered an abstract expressionist. I generally look at the parts and color of things and wonder if I can find a way to imitate the color of something. This also explains how I can hold several conversations at once. At least I could before my mental breakdown. Now I can only have two conversations at once. I made a ton of changes in my life to get to where I am mentally and knowing I am an abstract thinker is helpful. I am not crazy.

  16. Jj

    So is abstract thinking a skill or a hobby?

    1. Abe Strakt

      I would say it’s a thought reflex, you are born with it …..and it’s not always the best way of thought.
      My grandpa would always remind me how when I was 5, I would ask why- why -why while driving 2 hours to the cabin.
      Then when we are at the cabin on the lake I point at a water skier and ask him why the man is chasing the boat.
      Then I would ask the poor guy why 20 times as he explains water skiing.
      Abstract thinkers can be annoying, I just didn’t know it at the time.

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