Bottom-Up Processing: Definition and Examples

Key Takeaways

  • Bottom-up processing focuses on interpreting sensory information in real-time (Gibson, 1966).
  • Bottom-up processing occurs as our sensory receptors receive new sensory information and do not require prior knowledge or experiences.
  • Bottom-up processing is data-driven and emphasizes the importance of the stimulus itself, the raw data of the direct experience.
  • Bottom-up processing would function in a series of events that began with the intake of new sensory information, then our sensory receptors sending signals to the brain, where the brain would then process these signals and finally construct a perception based on the signals that were received.

The bottom-up process involves information traveling “up” from the stimuli, via the senses, to the brain which then interprets it, relatively passively.

Bottom-up processing is also known as data-driven processing because the processing of information begins with environmental stimuli, and perceptions are built from sensory input.

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Processing

Bottom-up processing begins with the retrieval of sensory information from our external environment to build perceptions based on the current input of sensory information (Gibson, 1966).

Top-down processing is the interpretation of incoming information based on prior knowledge, experiences, and expectations (Gregory, 1970)


  • Data-driven
  • Relies on sensory information
  • Takes place in real-time


  • Schema driven
  • Relies on knowledge and experiences

Bottom-up processing begins with retrieving sensory information from our external environment to build perceptions based on the current input of sensory information. Top-down processing interprets incoming information based on prior knowledge, experiences, and expectations.

In top-down processing, we know that previous knowledge, experience, and expectations are essential in creating perceptions about new stimuli, so the driving force in top-down perception is one’s previous knowledge, experience, and expectations (Gregory, 1974).

Whereas in bottom-up processing, no learning is required, and perceptions are solely based on new stimuli from one’s current external environment, meaning that the driving force of perception in bottom-up processing is the stimulus that is currently being experienced within one’s external environment (Gibson, 1972).

Sensation vs. Perception

Bottom-up processing is the process of ‘sensation’ and top-down is the process of ‘perception’.

Sensation is the input of sensory information from our external environment that is received by our sensory receptors. Bottom-up processing is the process of ‘sensation,’ whereby the input of sensory information from the external environment is received by our sensory receptors.

Perception is how our brains choose, organize, and interpret these sensations.

Perception is unique to each individual as we interpret these sensations based on our individual schemas that are constructed from previous knowledge, experiences, and expectations (Jandt, 2020).

How Bottom-Up Processing Works

Bottom-up processing starts with minute sensory details that are then used to construct larger ideas or perceptions about one’s external environment.

Processing is carried out in one direction from the retina to the visual cortex, with each successive stage in the visual pathway carrying out an ever more complex analysis of the input.

Bottom-up processing works like this:

  1. We start with an analysis of sensory inputs such as patterns of light.
  2. This information is replayed to the retina, where the process of transduction into the electrical impulses begins.
  3. These impulses are passed into the brain where they trigger further responses along the visual pathways until they arrive at the visual cortex for final processing.

Bottom-up processing states that we begin to perceive new stimuli through the process of sensation, and the use of our schemas is not required. James J. Gibson (1966) argued that no learning was required to perceive new stimuli.

Gibson looked at perception as more of a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of situation. Meaning that Gibson’s theory argues that perception functions as a straight line. We experience new stimuli through our sensations and then directly analyze their meaning.

Unlike Gregory’s theory (1970), Gibson believed that the environment holds all of the necessary tools to create accurate perceptions of incoming stimuli.

Real-Life Applications

You can compare how bottom-up processing works to how top-down processing works by considering examples of how each process works.

Stubbing your Toe

However painful, imagine you have just stubbed your pinky toe on the corner of the bed. Upon stubbing your pinky toe, the pain receptors in your toe would have immediately recognized the pain sensation and sent these very pain signals to your brain, where they are processed.

This would be considered bottom-up processing as your brain receives signals of pain sent by your pinky toe’s sensory receptors.

However, now that you have experienced the horrifying pain caused by stubbing your pinky toe, you are now extra careful to avoid the corners of your bed because you remember how painful that experience was and do not wish to repeat it, which would be an example of top-down processing.

Simply put, the sensation of pain and the subsequent signals sent to your brain that detected the pain caused by stubbing your pinky toe occurred through bottom-up processing.

Blind Food Taste Challenge

A blind taste testing challenge focuses on isolating all but one of the five senses, taste. Participants are asked to place a blindfold on and determine different characteristics of the food and/or drink items that are presented in front of them.

For example, in the study by Lowengart (2013), researchers sought to understand whether branding made a difference in consumer purchases by conducting a blind taste test challenge asking participants to determine which wine was better by tasting a variety of wines while being blindfolded.

This study intended to eliminate the possibility of participants being influenced by any senses other than taste. Meaning that bottom-up processing was actively at work as participants relied solely on their sense of taste to determine which wines best suited their preferences without having any other information about the wine they were drinking.

If the participants were asked to name the brand of wine, this would have included their utilization of their memory, therefore, meaning that bottom-up and top-down processing would have been used.

However, since participants were only asked to select the wines that best suited their preferences, only bottom-up processing was used in this study.


Prosopagnosia (phonetically pronounced praa-suh-pag-now-zhuh) is a visual form of agnosia where individuals cannot recognize faces or facial differences (Harris & Aguirre, 2017).

Prosopagnosia or often referred to as face blindness, is a rare condition where patients who are affected cannot recognize whether they have seen someone’s face before or not.

In cases such as these, top-down processing is not possible to distinguish one face from the next. Individuals must rely on taking in what they see at the moment when analyzing someone’s face.

This is because individuals with prosopagnosia can recognize different facial features but are not able to use their memory to put a name to a face. In essence, individuals with prosopagnosia cannot detect familiar faces because they cannot combine facial features into complete faces that they can then recognize in the future.

“Imagine that every person has a camera inside their head. Every time they meet somebody for the first time, they take a picture with their camera, develop the picture, and file it away for future use. …For me, I take a picture with my camera, but I never store it away” (Lewis, 2013).

As patients affected by prosopagnosia cannot mentally store the faces of individuals they know, using top-down processing to build perceptions is impossible as these individuals have no memory of the faces of people they have met in their lifetime.

Each and every encounter forces individuals with prosopagnosia to place a name with a face with the new sensory information presented within each encounter.


Gibson, J. J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gibson, J. J. (1972). A Theory of Direct Visual Perception. In J. Royce, W. Rozenboom (Eds.). The Psychology of Knowing. New York: Gordon & Breach.

Gregory, R. (1970). The Intelligent Eye. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Gregory, R. (1974). Concepts and Mechanisms of Perception. London: Duckworth.

Harris, A. & Aguirre, G. (2007). Prosopagnosia. Current Biology, 17 (1), R7-R8.

Jandt, F. E. (2020). In An Introduction to Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community (10th ed., pp. 68-101). California State University, San Bernardino, California: SAGE Publications.

Lewis, J. G. (2013, September 19). Prosopagnosia: Why Some are Blind to Faces. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from

Lowengart, O. (2013). The effect of branding on consumer choice through blind and non-blind taste tests . Innovative Marketing, 8 (4), 8(4), 7-18.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Victoria Rousay

Master's Student at Harvard University

B.A., Psychology, Texas A&M University

Victoria Rousay is a current student in the Master of Liberal Arts, Anthropology, and Archeology degree program at Harvard University.