The Theory of Cognitive Modes

A new understanding of thinking and behavior

Are you most comfortable operating in Perceiver Mode?

First in our four-part look at each of the cognitive modes

According to the Theory of Cognitive Modes, people vary in the degree to which they tend to rely on the top-brain and bottom-brain systems in their thinking and behavior. We all use both brain systems but vary in how deeply we use them. Depending on how deeply one does or doesn’t utilize each system, different cognitive modes result. Each of us has a dominant mode, which—all else being equal—we rely on; although we can change modes if we have the relevant experience and motivation, we often are most comfortable operating in a single mode. In this post, we’ll explore Perceiver Mode (for an overview of the theory, see our first post or watch a video).

Perceiver Mode results when the bottom-brain system is highly utilized but the top-brain system is not. People who highly utilize the bottom-brain system try to make sense in depth of what they perceive; they interpret what they experience, put it in context, and try to understand the implications. They may use the top-brain system to generate narratives that make sense of what the bottom brain registers, but they do not use the top brain to initiate complex or detailed plans; the top brain is largely used in the service of the bottom brain. By definition, people who are operating in Perceiver Mode do not often initiate detailed or complex plans.

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According to the theory, many librarians, naturalists, and pastors should rely habitually on Perceiver Mode. If the theory is correct, people who are relying on this mode often play a crucial role in a group; they can make sense of events and provide a bigger-picture perspective. In business, they should often be crucial members of teams, providing perspective and wisdom but not necessarily always getting credit.

To help illustrate the Theory of Cognitive Modes, we studied the actions and words of many notable people to consider what their default mode might be. We concluded that the great 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson, whose words still resonate more than a century and a quarter after her death, fits the description. Contemporary people who seem regularly to think and behave in Perceiver Mode include the Dalai Lama, photographer Annie Leibovitz, and the novelists Philip Roth, Alice Walker and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Another illustration may be found in the example of a neighborhood association or local club. Someone operating in Perceiver Mode may be quiet during a meeting—but she or he is listening intently, and clearly tracking what’s going on. Until she has something well founded to say, she keeps her own counsel—but she isn’t shy about speaking up, once she’s sure she has something to say. And because she deeply understands what she hears, she’s often worth listening to. For example, when she does speak about the fund-raiser plans, everyone listens; if she thinks that she’s spotted a flaw (for example, she thinks that the marketing message might alienate some families), she probably has good reason to think so.

Thinking in Perceiver Mode has distinct advantages: You can step back and get the big picture, taking your time to understand what’s going on around you. If you excel at operating in this mode in a particular situation, others will soon turn to you for wise advice. If you run into trouble, however, perhaps because you don’t have enough relevant experience that applies to present circumstances, you may simply have little to say.

The Theory of Cognitive Modes leads us to expect that operating in Perceiver Mode may often be personally absorbing and satisfying. You focus on understanding but are not under pressure to do something with your knowledge; you often seek knowledge for its own sake and appreciate the world around you. You sometimes live in the moment, which often is a good place to be.

However, one potential drawback of being in this mode is that it may lead you to be a bit passive. You may spend so much time in reflection that you are effectively lost in thought. This is not a necessary result of relying more on the bottom-brain system than on the top-brain system, but it is a possibility. Nevertheless, you still can use the top-brain system and move ahead—but you will tend not to have very elaborate plans.

Do you typically operate in Perceiver Mode—or in Mover, Stimulator or Adaptor Mode? To find out, you can take a quick online, automatically scored, test here.

In our next post, we will continue our exploration of the Theory of Cognitive Modes by focusing on Mover Mode. For a deeper understanding of the theory and a more detailed discussion of each mode, take a look at Top Brain, Bottom Brain.




Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D., is a psychologist and neuroscientist, and G. Wayne Miller is an author.


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