Abstract thinking is a concept often compared to concrete thinking, in which thinking is limited to what’s in front of the face, and the here and now. In contrast, the abstract thinker can conceptualize or generalize, understanding that each concept can have multiple meanings. Such thinkers might see patterns beyond the obvious and be able to use patterns or a variety of concrete ideas or clues to solve larger problems. One example of this contrast could be the reactions of a concrete and abstract thinker to the same painting of a women holding a torch. The concrete thinker would interpret the painting in a literal way, but the abstract thinker might interpret the painting as a representation of the Statue of Liberty and conclude the painter wanted to celebrate freedom.
There are many ways in which abstract thinking may be of benefit to people. It helps to problem solve in more creative ways, and has a tendency to allow people to think “outside of the box.” It also allows for richer conceptual understanding, and there are some early psychiatrists that believe “thinking” is not the only part of abstract knowledge. Carl Jung defined some personality types as having the ability to abstractly feel, intuit or sense, in addition to having ability to think.
In normal human populations people exhibit a range of abstract thinking ability, which is very clear as humans develop. Most younger children can’t think in abstract terms. For example, a child is told to expect a new brother or sister in nine months. Yet the concept of nine months especially to someone lacking counting ability or patience, can be dreadfully abstract, and the child might ask repeatedly when the new baby was going to arrive. Later on, the child would likely develop a concept of time and this information of thinking into the future becomes possible.
Not all people develop abstract thinking strengths and some people who have previously been strong in this area may lose the facility. People with certain learning disabilities and some types of mental retardation can have great difficulty conceptualizing beyond a certain point or they have trouble with words that represent ideas rather than things. In some instances brain injury, particularly in the frontal lobe, affects a person’s ability to think abstractly, and this may cause difficulties when people need to make conceptual decisions, make moral judgments or problem solve in complex ways.
It should be reiterated that there is a normal range of abstract thinking ability, and some people are more concrete than they are abstract. This does not predict less success in life, though high deficits in abstract thinking might indicate some learning disabilities. There are concrete and abstract thinking tests, but the reputable ones must be found through professionals like school psychologists. Online tests can be amusing to take but there is no way of judging their accuracy.