Chapter 4 • Abstracting

IntroArt - Dance - Body Language and Communication - Out and About in the WorldExperts - Skill Builder - Conclusion

The chapter as an abstract itself? Click here for a Flash version of the content.

Creative people use Abstracting in order to concentrate on one feature of a thing or process, in order to boil it down to basics and grasp its essence. Scientists, for example, may eliminate all superfluous traits from a physical situation (i.e. shape, size, color, texture, etc.) to key in on features of interest such as boiling point or mass. Another aspect of abstracting is the finding of analogies between seemingly disparate things. We may be more familiar with poets using analogical thinking but scientists do it as well. Newton’s comparison of the moon to a ball thrown so hard that its descent misses the earth and passes into orbit is an analogy as well, and one that led to the theory of universal gravitation. Anytime we ask students to distill the meaning or fundamentals of an idea or thing, and to explain by way of comparison, we are asking them to use abstraction or analogy.

The concept of abstraction can be especially difficult to grasp specifically because it is not tangible and it is a rather broad concept. Remember, it's all about narrowing it down to the basics. "It" can be a piece of art, dance, a scientific problem, a math problem, a poem, a novel, an idea, a tree, a human, ANYTHING!! When you think of the sun, what is ONE word that describes the sun to you? Yellow? Bright? Warm? Joy? Life? There is no wrong answer! As you learn about abstracting and analogizing, just keep in mind that you want to boil it all down to the basics - the essence of whatever "it" is. Relax and have fun!


"… all abstractions are simplifications, the best abstractions… yield new and often multiple insights and meanings, using simplicity to reveal inobvious properties and hidden connections… The simplest abstractions are often the hardest to perceive or devise and at the same time yield the most important insights." [75]

The following abstract expressions of art use basic design elements and principles (such as shape, form, color, balance, pattern, proportion, etc.) to create pleasing effects. The designs are so simplistic yet the visual impact is great.
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Some people don't consider something "simplistic" to be artistic..external image postsecret.jpg
"Don’t just look—think! Find the surprising properties hidden behind the obvious ones. See with your mind, not your eyes!" [73]
If you are still struggling to catch on, the video below gives a detailed explanation and comparison between the pictorial portion of a photograph and the abstract characteristics of the photo. In everything, there is abstraction. Step away from the details and see the forest for the trees, and ironically, you will then see the simplest, most basic ingredients.

"The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification… That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole.” [Novelist, Willa Cather] [76]

Simplicity conveys complex concepts. Without words, the photographer is able to convey love and beauty. These photographs reinforce the idea that less is more when it comes to abstract art.
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"Language, too, is shot through with abstractions. Many words, such as love, truth, honor, and duty, represent very complex concepts. The writer abstracts these and other words from a plethora of possible texts to make a singular statement." [76]

By E.E. Cummings
By E.E. Cummings

Abstraction can include assigning a new meaning to an object or item. Emoticons take something such as letters, parenthesis marks, and colons to indicate emotion such as happiness or playfulness.

PostSecret is an ongoing community mail art project, created by Frank Warren, in which people mail their secrets anonymously on a homemade postcard. Select secrets are then posted on the PostSecret website, or used for PostSecret's books or museum exhibits.

Examples of PostSecret postcards:
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[[#Dance]=]Dance= "Abstractions may not represent whole things but one or another of their less obvious properties." [73]Remember, too, that abstraction is not just about visual sensation. Abstraction can be expressed in any number of modes, including visual, aural, written and kinesthetic. Dance is a classic example of kinesthetic abstraction. The images and video below show how different concepts can be expressed through our bodies.

In this video, a dance troupe has devoted its entire mission to Abstract Dance, even calling themselves "Abstract Dance". What do you think of when you watch their movements - boredom? pain? struggle? excitement? In each movement and each dance, the dancers are communicating a feeling, an emotion, a concept, or an event. If we learn to open our minds then we might be able to see the true essence of the message. If we look only at the technique or the quality of the dance, then we miss the point completely. Quit looking at the details and imagine the entire concept. Strangely enough, when we step back to see the whole of the dance, we see the bare essential of the dance - the abstraction that the dancers are conveying.

How could anyone express the "nuclear war" through dancing? What is the critical essence? It is the pain, the agony and the destruction the human body feels when moving according to the movement of the nuclear elements.
Nuclear dance is an abstract dance based on an analogy. The bodies move and transfer this movement like the atoms in the molecular structure.

Body Language and Communication

"The language of the body is also abstract. Indeed, it is so basic that body talk, like arithmetic, can bridge the most disparate cultures." [76]
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We can all identify with times that we knew someone's message without hearing their words. An easy gesture, the pose of the body, and even motions with our hands can show someone what we are thinking and feeling, even show what we want them to do.

Body language can convey feelings we may not mean to convey. Fidgeting can lead someone to think you are nervous, and narrowed eyes can lead someone to think you are unhappy with something. Look at the postures below for clues to the differences.

"Caricatures are abstractions; so are a person’s initials. Even epigrams are a type of abstraction, embodying in a few words the experience and wisdom of ages: “A stitch in time saves nine.” "[77]
Something like a caricature abstracts by taking essential elements of a subject and enhancing them, as in this example of a bearded man. A feature someone would notice about the man is his beard, so the artist has enhanced and made larger the chin and beard. Other caricatures may enlarge eyes, ears, or other features to convey a message.

In sign language, abstracting became a "need" since you cannot use the advantage of using many words made by different combinations of letters like in oral language. Every sign mirrors the essential and only these elements of each meaning/word .

"In its most general sense, analogy refers to a functional resemblance between things that are otherwise unlike." [137]
The concept of analogies is taught in English as we are growing up. In fact, we are tested on our ability to understand analogies and find the relationship between words. As I read about analogies I distinctly remember taking multiple choice tests on word relationships: Grass is to green as sky is to blue. Even though this analogy in itself seems apparently simple- the more you practice the more complex analogies you can make with just words. The link below is a student activity center by Sadlier-Oxford. I found that it helped get my brain moving in the right direction to discover analogies in objects.
"It is critical to this process that analogies not be confused with similarities. Analogies recognize a correspondence of inner relationship or of function between two (or more) different phenomena or complex sets of phenomena. In fact, we limit the use of the term “analogy” to such comparisons. Similarities, on the other hand, are resemblances between things based upon observed characteristics such as color of form." [142]

In this photo the analogy to the ad being moving in a way to spark an emotion from the reader just as Martin Luther King's speech was moving to the audience. The inner relationship being the emotion created by the author to the audience. On the other hand, the focus of the ad is to sell a common item such as dog food. It is clear that there is no real similarity to a dog food ad and the powerful speech of Martin Luther King. However, the point of an analogy isn't to be similar. The understanding of an analogy is to create a comparison of inner relationships between two things that have no real similarity.
"The critical part of interesting analogies is that they reveal not mere resemblances but inapparent relationships between abstract functions, one of which is understood, the other not…In fact, these comparisons are inexact and in many ways inaccurate. In some cases useful analogies are literally wrong." [143]

This "man as tree" is an analogy of the makeup of a tree to the aspects of the human anatomy. While these analogies are inaccurate at face value it is important to note they are triple analogies. A more in depth look of life is make analogies of analogies which is what the "man as tree" picture does. For example the word 'ipudi' means son also thought of as a man's forefinger. Thus, when the tree was drawn the ends of the branches were drawn to symbolize the fingers of a man. To create the triple analogy the forefinger of the "tree of man" shows the drawing of a son. The beauty of such in depth analogies allow people to search for deeper meanings of words, drawings, and nature.
"But truth be told, it is the inexact, imperfect nature of the analogy that allows it to bridge the known and the unknown in the first place. Analogies, as imperfect correspondences presumed in spite of difference, help us make the leap from existing knowledge to new worlds of understanding that now other mental tool allows." [143]

This idea of analogies to bridge the unknown with the known is similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. In this picture the professional can sympathize with the married couple. He can feel sorry and try to understand what they are going through. However, in this case he doesn't feel the pain because he is not in the relationship. Thus, in order for the married couple to express a situation to which he could empathize they must provide an analogy to which the professional would experience similar pain. The analogy of a ship taking on water might provide a sense of panic, being overwhelmed, having no exit, and even not knowing what to do. Providing such an analogy provides a person to make the leap from unknowing to knowing through mental tools.

Out and About in the World

"[Eliminating] everything except one key element from their observation and thinking… [Reducing] complex visual, physical, or emotional ideas to bare, stripped images, revealing, through simplicity, the power of purity." [72]
Migraine is an extremely complicated physiological event. Scientists and doctors struggle every day to learn more about migraine so that they can solve the puzzle of this dibilitating illness for their patients. When you strip down the complexities of migraine to its barest elements, one of the main words that comes to mind is "pain" (though not all migraine events involve pain for the individual). When people think of migraine, they think of pain. What does that pain feel like? What does it look like? Here are some great visual abstractions that really express the true experience of migraine.


Even if you have never experienced migraine or have never even heard the term "migraine", you can easily tell from these abstractions that migraine is painful, confusing and contradictory. This is the essence of abstraction - being able to express one sensation through the stimulation of another sense. The viewer sees the image with his or her eyes, and this triggers the emotional sensation of pain and sometimes, even a hint of the physical sensation of pain. Abstraction can transport the individual to another dimension of sensation, and that is the goal.

Some of the most prominent logos used in advertising and marketing are based off of basic abstract expressions. Nike's swoosh is among the most easily recognized brand logos in the world. The logo represents the wing of the Greek Goddess, Nike.
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"Abstracting, then, is a process beginning with reality and using some tool to pare away the excess to reveal a critical, often surprising, essence. Artists do it; writers do it; scientists, mathematicians, and dancers do it. And they all do it the same basic way." [90]
Every single web-page is an abstraction and we see only the essence of it:
but this is what the creator has made while had in mind what essence wanted to show

"… the process of abstracting is identical, and can be interactive, across disciplines. When an artist invents a new method of abstracting, scientists and technologists benefit, and when a scientist or engineer discovers another form of abstraction, artists may hurry to employ it. Every scientific experiment, every scientific theory, is just as much an abstraction as an abstract painting or poem. Scientist, artist, and poet alike all strive to find meaning in complex systems by eliminating every possible variable save one. Experimentation in science, like that in the arts, becomes a formalized process for discovering important abstractions." [87]

The electrons can move around the nuclei of the atom like the planets around the sun...

"Without being identical, ideas can resonate, too, just like the strings of musical instruments or the electrons and nuclei of atoms." [140]

Mathematical examples:

"Modern toys don’t leave much margin for imagination." [155-156]
This comical illustration presents 4 teens trying to figure out what to do with a ball that doesn't "do anything." Using imagination to abstract or assign meaning is an important skill that can go missing when the toys do all the "thinking."

CliffsNotes and other summarizing services boil down the entire movie or 500+ page book into the essence of the book. You can get the main idea of a movie or course assigned reading in just a fraction of the time it would take to read or view the whole assignment.
Cliff Notes


Flowcharts come in all shapes and sizes and are simplifications of complex processes or, as you can see, other, less complicated processes. When humor is incorporated into flowcharts, the abstraction multiplies.


When looking in the online Thesaurus, the top three synonyms for "graph" are listed as chart, linear representation, visual representation. Graphs are one of the most obvious example of abstractions as their whole purpose is to represent information in a condensed and simplified form.

Traffic signs and signals
As drivers approach traffic signs, they immediately know what they are expected to do.
One Way = Cars will be coming at you if you went down that road.
Speed limit signs indicate a safe speed for driving through an area. One can interpret that going faster than that could have repercussions.
Traffic Signals: colors indicate meaning.

Scientific Abstract/Movie Trailer
This instructional video compares a scientific abstract to a movie trailer. It highlights that you will glean the essence of a scientific article from reading the abstract or of a movie from watching the trailer (the abstract versions), but you would not claim to have full understanding of the topic just from the abstract.

The whole purpose of a school mascot is to "represent". Sparty is the live representation of enthusiasm and school spirit. By just looking at Sparty or watching his video, you can see the abstract idea of "school spirit" represented and acted out again and again.

Other Abstractions:
Book Titles
Song clips
ID cards









Skill bill...

A menu of helpful techniques for enhancing your abstraction capabilities.

After reviewing the pictures and videos above, you should have a better idea of what abstracting and analogizing is all about. Now, the next step is to practice those skills. You can use the links and games below to try out your skills, and make sure to come back and visit often to keep those skills sharp!

Wordle -

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Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

The list below is taken from a great article on how to help your child learn abstract thinking skills (Help Your Child Think Big! Use math to build your child's abstract-thinking skills. By Douglas Clements, PhD and Julie Sarama). You might want to go check out the entire article to learn more.
How to Encourage Abstract Thinking
You can help your child build abstract thinking skills throughout the day by talking about, and helping her reflect on, her experiences. Try these activities:
  • Count everything. Count stairs as you go up; count plates for meals; count raisins for snacks, and so on.
  • Help your child learn the counting rules. Using a puppet (Mr. Mixup), count incorrectly and invite your child to correct him. Ask her to describe what Mr. Mixup did wrong. Your child will count more consistently with smaller numbers.
  • Play with routes and maps. With very young children, talk about landmarks you see when you take walks, indoors or out. Your child can begin to create models of these landmarks using toys. An older child can try to build a model of his bedroom, for example, and eventually start to draw simple maps. He can also play games, such as trying to find objects you've hidden using a simple map you've drawn of your home. Emphasize that models and maps are shrunken versions of the original space.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for hands-on experiences. Manipulatives (pattern blocks, shape sets, connecting cubes, and unit blocks) and other objects (buttons, rocks, or beads) help your child build representations of mathematical ideas. Young children often possess knowledge about numbers, but they cannot express that knowledge; manipulatives can help them do that.
  • Build with shapes. Have blocks of different shapes readily available for making designs and building. Point out shapes in everyday objects and try to re-create them with blocks.
  • Encourage problem-solving. Manipulatives, such as blocks, can be used for counting, arithmetic, patterning, and building geometric forms. Encourage children to use these materials to solve a variety of problems and then to reflect on and justify their solutions. This is an essential step in abstracting the ideas that the manipulatives help develop.
  • Classify for a reason. Sort and classify all kinds of items. Emphasize that people create the categories for sorting. When cleaning up, put blocks of the same shape together, or classify blocks that roll and those that do not.
  • Talk to your child. Discussion helps your child turn language and thought on themselves, and helps them learn abstract concepts. Discuss events that happened long ago and far away. This helps your child learn to represent ideas and manipulate symbols abstractly, but meaningfully. Ask her to reflect on her day and plan what she will do tomorrow. If she is trying to solve a problem, ask her to consider other ways of approaching it. Have your child represent her ideas in many different ways, such as by talking, singing, dramatizing, or drawing — all the "languages" of children.
  • Ask questions: Why? Why not? What if? These questions prompt your child to think about and describe features of mathematical objects, such as shapes. They also encourage looking at things from another's point of view.
  • Help your child learn to ask good questions. Young children rarely ask for more information when they do not understand, but given explicit encouragement, they learn to do so.
  • Share math books. Read and discuss books that teach mathematical ideas, such as counting, size relationships, shapes, and so forth.

How to Think Abstractly (through the eyes of a child and/or adult!)

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To think abstractly, focus on the lesson at hand. Focus on the main idea and think of how this can be conveyed in the most basic sense.
One of the favorite Dr. Seuss books is Green Eggs and Ham, which ends with the narrator changing his mind from rejecting green eggs and ham under any circumstances to trying them and actually liking them. At a concrete level of understanding, the story is about a stubborn person changing his mind. At a more abstract level of understanding, it is about people in general being capable of modifying their thoughts and desires even when they are convinced that they cannot or do not want to do so. This more abstract level of understanding can be appreciated by two and three year old children only if the higher level of meaning comes out of a discussion of the book with a more mature adult. At older ages and higher levels of thinking, this same process of more mature thinkers facilitating higher levels of abstraction in less mature thinkers characterizes the process of teaching abstract thinking. For example, this is how great philosophers, like Socratesand Plato, taught their pupils how to think abstractly. (

There is considerable evidence showing that parents who think out loud with their children in ways suggested by the following list facilitate their child’s cognitive development. That is, parents who think out loud with their children in these ways have children who, other things being equal, develop organized, deep, and abstract thinking more quickly than comparable children who do not spend time with adults who think out loud with them in these ways. Teachers can play the same thinking-out-loud role with students. In effect, adults are taking children on as “apprentices in thinking” as they think out loud with the children. As adults think out loud with children, they should routinely seek feedback from the student to ensure that the adult’s “out-loud thinking” is being understood and perhaps even triggering the student’s thought processes.

  • Think out loud with the student: Great teachers of thinking, like Socrates, spend much of their time thinking through issues with their students, leading them gradually to ever higher levels of understanding and abstraction. Similarly it is known that parents who think out loud in an organized and compelling way with their young children facilitate the child’s development of systematically higher levels of thinking, better organized thinking, and better problem solving. In home and classroom discussions, this out-loud thinking about important topics can be organized around the following thought processes:
    • searches for explanations (e.g., why and how questions)
    • searches for analogies to make the subject matter more understandable (e.g., “Let’s think about what this might be like in your life; what are other examples of this?”)
    • searches for alternative perspectives (e.g., “Are there other ways to think about this? How might other people think about this?”)
    • ways to organize the topic and make connections (e.g., “I think there are three separate issues here that we should consider in order”; “Let’s try to think about what this might be connected to”)
    • ways to evaluate (e.g., “How can we decide if this is a good thing or not?”)
    • ways to draw inferences (e.g., “If this is true, then what else must be true?”)

  • Use illuminating and motivating analogies: Just as finger counting makes abstract numbers and arithmetic operations more concrete for six year old children, so also meaningful analogies make abstract material more concrete for older students. For example, in explaining the three branches of government to a concrete thinking high school student, a teacher might say, “When your parents create rules for you, they are functioning like the legislative branch of government. When they enforce those rules, they are functioning like the executive branch. When they try to resolve conflicts between you and your sister, they are functioning like the judicial branch.” This use of analogies connects the unfamiliar with the familiar, thereby making the abstract and unfamiliar more concrete and understandable.

  • Use external supports as needed: In logic, Venn diagrams (overlapping circles) are used to “concretely” represent logical relationships among propositions. Similarly, a time line flow chart might be used to represent relationships among events in time. Models of the solar system are used to represent relationships among the sun, planets, and moons. When a product that needs assembly is opened, there is usually a sequence of pictures showing exactly how to put the object together. Each of these two- or three-dimensional representations of the organization of that which is represented can be considered a “map” – a concrete representation of more abstract relationships. The map guides one through unfamiliar territory and if you don’t know the territory, you need a map!

For more information, visit

Visit and see creative simile-based analogies of young students. Try to think as a young child and explain "elaborate meanings" by using analogies with everyday simple things.


Abstracting and Analogizing: Two Critical Thinking Skills

Abstracting is an inextricable part of our thinking and perceiving. There are abstractions everywhere in our everyday life...
…the stop lights on our drive

…the “subject” line as we read our emails…

Common and simple abstractions like these can be difficult to notice. Observing can help us detect these “hidden” abstractions.

In artistic creations abstracting is a very popular technique. The creators are attempting to grasp the essence of the object or concept they are representing. We can better understand and value these concepts by seeing the creation through the creator's eyes...and empathizing !

Breaking down the information and finding the essential parts is the starting point for abstracting. Presenting this essence in a “simpler” and more "pure" representation is the applied aspect of abstracting. And finally, connecting these essentials with other seemingly unrelated ideas is the process of analogizing. Analogizing is accomplished by highlighting similarities between the current object or concept and another seemingly unrelated object or concept.

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Freud's theory of Personality presented through analogy and abstraction

Being able to create abstractions and analogies shows a deep level of understanding that comes from reflecting upon the meanings and properties of the subject. These critical thinking skills need to be encouraged, practiced and honed by adults, teens and children. Without critical thinking skills, we lose our creativity, imagination and problem solving skills. So, enjoy and embrace your imagination and make sure to have fun practicing and playing!