Your brain produces thousands of thoughts every single day. One study by a team of psychologists found that the average human has more than 6,000 thoughts each day, constantly filtering in and out and guiding our actions.
No wonder burnout is common, especially for those of us who overthink and thus constantly overwork our cognitive muscles.
We learn how to think from a very young age, and the way we think changes as we mature into adults. We become more able to pick up on subtleties, solve problems more effectively, and use past experiences to make judgments (for good or for bad).
There are many different types of thought processes, but let’s break them down into six categories, helping you understand which are most effective for different situations and how you can tap into new ways of thinking.
But first, let’s briefly define what a thought process is.
What is a thought process?
A thought process is how you form and organize your thoughts. Thinking involves a range of skills that you have developed over time, including reasoning, problem solving, judging, and remembering.
When thinking, your mind is coming alive with imaginations and memories and even daydreams. Consider those times when you think to yourself: how did I land on this thought? I had been thinking about something completely different. Your thought process has led you down a path to another thought and place to ruminate, whether or not you planned it.
So, what are the main types of thought processes and when are they most helpful?
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1. Concrete thinking
Let’s start with the most straightforward. Concrete thinking is a pretty literal thought process. It focuses on what is physically in front of you and the facts that you are certain of. It doesn’t require much creativity and is more focused on the practical.
For example, someone who is only thinking concretely may not understand a pun or a joke, since they are focusing on the literal meanings of words. Young children rely on concrete thinking to make sense of their early experiences, and it is our underlying way of thinking and perceiving.
2. Abstract thinking
Abstract thinking, on the other hand, is more concerned with concepts and ideas instead of physical certainties. However, abstract thinking still gives you the ability to understand real concepts, like emotions or love, but these concepts are not as cut-and-dry. Abstract thinking allows you to make connections with what’s around you based on deeper experiences and processes, including sensory details and associations.
Abstract thinking is important for us to be able to understand and derive meaning from art, metaphors, and even humor. It allows us to think and speak figuratively and analyze situations instead of only taking them at face value.
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3. Creative thinking
Many school teachers emphasize the importance of creative thinking. It’s the classic “think outside the box” concept where you use abstract thinking to create solutions or new ideas based on observations and impressions.
Brainstorming is an example of creative thinking. Instead of just absorbing and pondering what’s around you, creative thinking allows you to take things a step further, stimulating the mind, to create and solve using your own skills.
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4. Reflective thinking
Reflective thinking can also lead to solving problems and creating original concepts and works. But this thought process is concerned with ruminating about an experience, connecting it to one’s memories and knowledge, and trying to make sense of facts as they connect one another.
When you’re trying to make an important decision or solve a difficult problem, reflective thinking gives you time to consider your options, pay attention to how your body is physically responding, and tap into your skill sets and knowledge. This thought process helps you more confidently and effectively make decisions.
5. Critical thinking
Critical thinking is a mix of concrete, abstract, and creative thinking. You have to be able to siphon out some of your opinions and emotions and focus on the facts in front of you; yet you also need to problem solve and think creatively.
Critical thinking can help you identify a problem before it even occurs, for example. You can figure out what could go wrong with a project or experiment and use creative thinking to come up with a better solution. It is the process of forming a judgment based on a more objective evaluation of the issue at hand.
6. Associative thinking
One type of creative thinking is associative thinking, through which you try to open your mind to think freely, associating different thoughts and ideas with whatever comes up naturally. This can be a great exercise to free yourself up to accept things you try to push aside otherwise. It can lead to lots of ingenuity and self-discovery.
One study showed that creative students who practice associative thinking report “a feeling or experience of being found by thought, rather than finding it.” So, associative thinking helps you stay open to what comes instead of guiding your mind to certain places.
There are many types of thinking. Is there a right thought process?
Now, these are the main overall categories of thought processes, but many others fall within them. For example, linear thinking is a type of concrete thinking where thoughts are formed in order or in steps. Holistic thinking is its opposite, where you can see the bigger picture and how components and thoughts relate to one another without just moving in one direction.
Some of us have tendencies toward certain types of thinking. If you say a person is more practical-minded, they like the concrete details and are usually good critical thinkers. Creative types harness abstract and associative thinking to be able to say or express something new and profound.
There is no right or wrong thought process, but clearly, some are better than others for certain situations. If you find yourself stuck on a work project, decision, or problem, try associative thinking to open up your mind to new possibilities. When repairing something in your house, perhaps stick to a concrete, more critical way of thinking.
When you go to a comedy show, remember that when you’re able to grasp a metaphor or joke, you’re flexing that abstract thinking brain.