Abstract Thinking and Dementia: 4 Exercises to Keep Your Brain Fit as You Age


If dementia was a bowl of homemade vegetable soup, each ingredient would represent a different symptom of the disease. Naturally, no two bowls of soup are the same.

The symptom most people associate with dementia is forgetfulness. Potatoes could represent forgetfulness. But forgetfulness itself does not mean dementia, just like potatoes alone cannot make vegetable soup.

One significant symptom of dementia that doesn’t immediately come to mind is reduced abstract thinking. This ingredient is the salt of dementia soup.

What Is Abstract Thinking?

The easiest way to define abstract thinking is to talk about it in contrast to concrete thinking. Concrete thinking pertains to ideas that we can relate to using our senses. We can see a flower, hear a donkey, touch corduroy, and smell supper cooking.

Abstract thinking involves concepts with which we don’t have a physical relationship. We can’t see wisdom, hear peace, touch economic reform, or smell prejudice.

Abstract thinking itself, is an abstract idea, hence the difficulty in explaining it.

Language is abstract. Any word could be used to represent a tree, yet we, English speaking people, have all agreed that T-R-E-E will be used to represent the tall, growing, brown and green, woody thing in our back yard. Other languages have chosen different sound/letter sequences.

Math, too, is abstract. ‘Five’ is not concrete until we connect it to five bananas.

Colour may be considered concrete because we can see it. But it, too, is an abstract idea. When my oldest son was very small, I decided to teach him his colours. As I chose a toy and presented it to him, I would say, “This is blue.” He studied it, shook his head, and said, “Car.”

I chose another toy, showed it to him, and said, “This is blue.” Again, he shook his head and announced, “Dinosaur.” With every blue toy I selected, he resisted the idea of calling any of them blue. To his developing brain, colour was still an abstract idea.

What Does Loss of Abstract Thinking Look Like with Dementia?

Naturally, some of us tend to be more abstract thinkers and some of us tend to be more concrete thinkers. Since we don’t all operate with the same level of abstract thinking, reduced abstract thinking is then relative. We can best recognize it in others when we know them well.

Loss of abstract thinking shows up as taking things literally, not being able to draw conclusions, not being able to read between the lines, understand irony, or get a joke.

I phone my aunt every day to talk to her. She has some dementia, so our conversations are not that deep and usually include the weather.

On one particularly cold and snowy day, I said it would be a good day to go to the beach. Most people would recognize the mild sarcasm, but she simply said that she didn’t think it was.

How Can We Hone Our Abstract Thinking Skills?

There’s good news. You can exercise your abstract thinking skills.

Here are some things you can do.

Make up Analogies

An analogy compares two different things. Analogies can either trigger an understanding of one thing by examining its similarities with another thing or use known similarities between the two things to create a deeper meaning.

The easiest type of analogy to play with is the simile. A simile compares two things using the connecting words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

‘Sweet’ is an abstract idea, but paired with a concrete one, it gives your brain the skill of making new neural connections, as in “She is sweet as sugar.”

‘Careless and clumsy’ is another abstract thought. To make that it more concrete, we use the analogy “He is like a bull in a china shop.”

Exercise: Think of an abstract word and make a connection to a concreate idea using either ‘like’ or ‘as’. Here are some examples of words to get you started: wise, tall, joy, helpful, and love.

This exercise expands your abstract thinking by allowing you to make new cognitive links between usually unrelated ideas.

Analyze Symbols

Symbols are often used to represent concepts. A business will use their logo in an attempt to offer a glimpse into the company values.

Take a look at Amazon’s logo, for example. Their business is online shopping, and the yellow arrow in their logo starts at the letter ‘a’ and ends at the letter ‘z’, implying that they sell everything from a to z.

The arrow also represents a smile, with the arrowhead being a stylized dimple indicating the happiness people feel when they shop with Amazon.

Exercise: Look at logos and consider what each of them symbolises.

Play “What if…”

Another way of creating abstract pathways in your brain is the “What if…” game. This exercise can jump back and forth between concrete and abstract ideas.

Exercise: Ask yourself a hypothetical “what if” question. Then come up with as many answers to that question as you can. The rule here is that there are no limits to your answers. They don’t need to be possible or realistic either, although they can be.

Here are some questions to start you off. What if people were covered in fur like other animals? And what if I moved to a tropical island? What if we never had winter?

Play the “What if and then what if…” Game

A big part of abstract thinking is understanding the deeper meaning of a concept. By advancing the “what if” game you will be further stretching your abstract thinking. In the previous “what if” game, you go wide with as many answers as possible. In this version you go deep.

Exercise: Once you have answered the question, instead of coming up with another answer you would ask a new question which is “what if” to that answer and keep following that train of thought.

To get started, you can use the answers from the previous exercise.

It’s All About the Right Kind of Exercise

Many people enjoy doing puzzles to exercise their brain. Exercising your abstract thinking skills will also keep your brain sharp.

As an added bonus, you may find that not only will these activities strengthen your abstract thinking, they may also add colour to your conversations. There’s an abstract idea!

Are you more of an abstract thinker or a concrete thinker? Do you enjoy looking at modern art to figure out what the artist was attempting to depict? Do you think about how everything relates to everything else or to the bigger picture? Please share your thoughts below and let’s get the conversation going.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.

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