Today we’re obsessed with data. Experts in every industry are finding ingenious ways to measure and depict millions of data points every day.

But data is virtually worthless unless someone can look at the numbers, detect patterns, analyze what those patterns mean, and develop narratives to explain them to everybody else.

The difference between collecting data and understanding its meaning is the difference between concrete and abstract thinking.

Abstract thinking is the ability to understand concepts that are real, such as freedom or vulnerability, but which are not directly tied to concrete physical objects and experiences.

Abstract thinking is the ability to absorb information from our senses and make connections to the wider world.

A great example of abstract thinking at work is humor. Comedians are experts in abstract thinking. They observe the world around them. They detect incongruities, absurdities, and outrages. And they build jokes out of the unexpected connections.

How you use abstract thinking

Abstract thinking is considered a higher-order reasoning skill. You use it when you:

  • create things
  • speak figuratively
  • solve problems
  • understand concepts
  • analyze situations
  • form theories
  • put things in perspective

Abstract thought is usually defined alongside its opposite: concrete thinking. Concrete thinking is connected closely to objects and experiences that can be directly observed.

An example of a task that involves concrete thinking is breaking down a project into specific, chronological steps. A related abstract thinking task is understanding the reasons why the project is important.

Most of us need to use a blend of concrete and abstract thinking to function well in day-to-day life.

Abstract thinking skills develop as we grow and mature. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget explained the way children’s thinking abilities change as they get older.

Piaget said that from birth until around the age of 2, babies and toddlers generally think concretely. They observe and explore the world around them using their five senses and motor skills.

See the Cheerio on the floor, pinch it with your fingertips, and put it in your mouth. Decide you like it. Repeat the process.

From ages 2 to 7, children develop the ability to think symbolically, which may be the foundation for abstract thinking. They learn that symbols like letters, pictures, and sounds can represent actual objects in the real world.

From age 7 until around 11, kids develop logical reasoning, but their thinking remains largely concrete — tied to what they directly observe.

Sometime around age 12 and continuing into adulthood, most people build on their concrete reasoning and expand into abstract thinking.

This stage includes the growing ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes (to use an abstract-thinking metaphor), learning how to empathize. The exercise of empathy is considered an abstract thinking ability.

Many of the tasks students perform in school are tied to abstract thinking. Math skills are often abstract. They rely on the ability to conceptualize numbers and operations without always putting your hands on physical objects.

The study of language often involves analyzing and expressing abstract ideas, making generalizations about human nature and conflict, and learning to write figurative comparisons like metaphors and similes.

History, social studies, philosophy, and politics all require the ability to think generally about social problems and use ethical judgment. Science requires students to propose, test, and revise hypotheses and theories.

Apart from the academic aspects of school, navigating the complex social situations presented during a typical school day also involves abstract thinking.

People who are able to think abstractly are often good at:

  • taking intelligence tests
  • solving complex problems
  • creating art of all types
  • coming up with novel options and directions (divergent thinking)

If you want to improve your abstract thinking skills, here are some things you can try:

easy ways to improve your abstract thinking
  • Improvise. If there’s an improvisational theater group in your area, consider taking a workshop that allows you to explore this open-ended form of performance play.
  • Solve puzzles. 3D, visual, and word puzzles will train you to think of alternatives beyond those that occur to you immediately.
  • Build 3D models. Research has shown that people in science, technology, engineering, and math professions enhance their abstract thinking abilities by doing arts and crafts projects.
  • Explore optical illusions. Some researchers use art and photographs with optical illusions to train students to see things in multiple ways, which is a hallmark of abstract reasoning.
  • Play with figurative language. The ability to write similes, metaphors, analogies, and even pieces of personification can stimulate abstract thinking. Think of something concrete and relate it to something abstract: “On the day he was sentenced, rain fell continuously, as if Justice were weeping.” Or “The psychologist made a sexist remark, saying women’s minds were like bowls of spaghetti.”

Some neurological conditions may interfere with your ability to think abstractly.

  • Autism spectrum disorder. Researchers have found that some people with autism spectrum disorder may have trouble with concepts and problem-solving.
  • Schizophrenia. Some forms of abstract thinking, particularly those involved in interpreting social situations, may be limited by schizophrenia.
  • Traumatic or organic brain injuries. Injuries from accidents and prenatal exposures, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, can impact the areas of the brain that make abstract thinking possible.
  • Intellectual disabilities. Individuals with intellectual impairment often have difficulties using and understanding abstract thinking skills.
  • Dementia. Often the parts of the brain involved in many types of dementia are the same parts that control abstract thinking skills.

Sometimes the ability to imagine, predict, and make connections interferes with healthy functioning.

Take the cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing, for example. If you habitually imagine worse case scenarios, you may increase your anxiety level or worsen depression symptoms.

Overgeneralization is another example. If you experience a setback as proof that you’re a failure, your ability to generalize is reaching an inaccurate and counterproductive conclusion. Research has shown that this kind of abstraction is common with anxiety and depression.

If you have one of these conditions, you may find that abstract thinking is occasionally problematic:

The good news is that researchers have found that you can practice concrete thinking skills and use them to improve depression symptoms and even help you with decision-making during periods of depression.

Abstract thinking is the ability to consider concepts beyond what we observe physically. Recognizing patterns, analyzing ideas, synthesizing information, solving problems, and creating things all involve abstract thinking.

The ability to think abstractly develops as we mature, and we can intentionally improve our abstract thinking ability by improvising and playing with puzzles, models, and language.

Striking a healthy balance between abstract and concrete thinking is important for maintaining good mental health and daily functioning.