The concrete thinking is a kind of thinking literal that focuses on the physical world and its elements. It is considered the opposite of abstract thinking and people use it to reflect on facts, on the here and now, on physical objects, and on literal definitions.
Concrete thinking, due to its fundamental importance for our survival, is the first that children learn to master. Very young babies think in an extremely concrete way, reaching the point of not being able to conceive that an object exists if they are not able to see it.
However, this kind of thinking alone is not enough for a person to have a normal life. If someone gets stuck in the stages of development where only concrete thinking is used, they are very likely to develop autism spectrum disorders or the like.
Next we will see some of the most important characteristics of concrete thinking.
It focuses only on what is present here and now
A person who was thinking nothing more than in a concrete way would be unable to reflect on something that is not present in his immediate reality.
Therefore, this type of thinking is not valid for planning about the future, drawing conclusions, or making metaphors.
Requires little mental processing
Because it focuses on a very basic part of reality, concrete thinking uses little mental energy and does not require great processing power.
For this reason, it is the one that is performed in general when there is a brain problem or the person is in an altered state of consciousness.
Some studies show, in fact, that the ability to think concretely is shared by many animal species.
Only some types of primates could think abstractly. And yet, this ability would be present in a very limited way in them.
Focus on the facts
Concrete thinking is only capable of dealing with the obvious, with the first explanation that can be given to what happens.
Therefore, it is not effective to search for different theories about a situation. It also does not serve to find the hidden motives behind an action or moment.
It is based on the senses
The only valid information for the person who uses only concrete thought is that which comes from his senses. Thus, if someone cannot use abstract reasoning, they would be unable to make generalizations or try to understand why it happens.
On the other hand, the person who only uses concrete reasoning would not understand concepts such as emotion, desire or goal. She would only be able to worry about the most basic survival and living in the present moment.
Differences with abstract thinking
Now that we have seen what exactly concrete thought consists of, how does it differ from abstract thought ? Are they two sides of the same coin? Or, on the contrary, are they totally different skills?
Difficulty acquiring it
On the one hand, we can see that abstract thinking is much more complicated to develop at an evolutionary level. Only some of the higher animals would have been able to generate it; and among them, only humans in a really complex way.
Within our own development as people, exactly the same pattern can be observed. Children live practically their entire childhood using nothing but concrete thinking.
Thus, only shortly before entering adolescence are they able to begin to reflect on something that is not present at that time. And even so, at this time the ability to think abstractly would not yet be fully formed.
It involves different areas of the brain
The latest advances in neuroscience suggest that abstract thinking is much more present in the prefrontal cortex , the last part of the brain to develop at an evolutionary level.
Although concrete thinking is also related to it, it also implies other areas in charge of processing information from the senses.
Thus, we can affirm that the two types of thinking are abilities that have developed at different times in our history as a species. Therefore, despite having many things in common, we cannot say that it is a single mental process.
Differences in intelligence
Concrete thinking has little impact on intelligence (since the ability to use it is very similar in all people).
However, differences in the ability to use abstract thinking cause different levels of IQ to appear.
Thus, abstract thinking helps people to use abilities such as language , creativity or logic. Without this ability, the vast majority of advancements we have made as a species simply would not exist.
There are different types of abstract thinking
Concrete thinking only focuses on the facts, on what can be observed through sight, hearing and the rest of the senses. Therefore, it leaves no room for many interpretations.
However, abstract thinking, being much more complex, can develop in a multitude of directions when faced with the same stimulus.
Thus, we can find different types of this variant of thought; for example, divergent I thought , critical thinking thought analytical or convergent thinking.
One of the best ways to understand what concrete thinking is exactly is by examining how children use it.
Developmental psychologists have studied this phenomenon based on the different stages that people go through when we grow up.
Thus, in the concrete reasoning phase, children are unable to qualify the information they receive from their senses with any type of logic. A classic example of this is the playdough balls experiment.
Plasticine balls experiment
The study consists of the following. The experimenter takes two balls of play dough of clearly different sizes, and shows them to a child in the concrete reasoning stage.
After asking which of the two has the most amount of plasticine, the psychologist squashes the smallest of them into an elongated shape, and asks the child the same question again. The latter, seeing that the clay now occupies more space than the other ball, answers that the largest is the one with an elongated shape.
As can be seen, the child is unable to understand that, if one of the pieces had less amount of plasticine and nothing has been added, it is impossible that now it has more than the other. This occurs because, at this stage, nothing more than concrete thinking is being used.
Because the child’s senses tell him that elongated play dough takes up the most space, he believes that it has the most, despite the evidence that people using abstract thinking can see.
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