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Mental Schemas: How a Learnt Experience Shapes Our Life

Acknowledged as the most curious organ of the body, one that has ensured the survival and sentience of all species on earth, a structure that has dramatically advanced across aeons - the Brain. Neurons are the basic unit of brain cells that assemble together and form soft nervous tissues. These bundles of nerves result in the wrinkled shapes of the Brain called gyrus and sulcus. In all, it creates the middle seat for the execution of natural feats such as intellect, sensation, physical activity, emotional regulation, decision making, sleep, memory, etc. A noteworthy virtue of the Brain is the ability to learn, employing which human beings have adapted to several worldly obstructions and have emerged uniquely evolved and victorious overtime. However, no one particular learning technique is set in stone and applicable to every person.

Picture Courtesy: Dani Casanova-Martinez (Based on an anatomical illustration by Greg Dunn)

For centuries now, scholars have argued about how is the process of learning actually acquired. Some may say that it occurs through social experiences and settings (Social Learning Theory). Some believe that we are born with an innate set of knowledge (Innatism theory). Some also suggest that learning is an active process that takes place throughout life as we get older (Adult learning theory). In contrast, some have deduced that learning occurs through personal experiences and interpretations (Constructivist and Connectivism theory).

Furthermore, several scientists proved that learning occurs through positive reinforcements and punishments (Classical and Operant conditioning). Most have also noted that it occurs through stages of cognitive development. Holistically, all these theories about how learning occurs can blend and interact with one another to some extent. Just like we learn that life isn’t the same for everyone in the world, we have also learned to accept and extrapolate theoretical ideas to our benefit.

Human beings are now beginning to understand how brains have a set of frameworks through which animals (including ourselves) learn about themselves and the environment around them. The process of learning at the personal level is about the ability to consciously anticipate and relatively alter our responses to internal and external information. To deliberate the same, we observe the world around us through our senses (i.e. sensation). The sensory organs then send that information towards the Brain so that it may process and perform further analyses for making sense of it (resulting in Perception and Judgement). The latter stage is crucial, for it is where meaning is appropriately associated with stimuli and subsequently used to derive affectively or motor conclusions (i.e. Decisions/actions). Such a structured learning technique is often a culmination of observation, perception, association and execution, in that order. These mental steps of learning also give rise to a schema. Schemas can be defined as storyboards of ideas or patterns of thoughts and their ensuing behaviours. They are like mental slates that allow us to organize, interpret and relate to information systematically. By following the same sequence of behaviour, schemata facilitate decision making during instances that have something in stock or are recurring, or similar. They also mediate perspective (re)actions to new cases based on one’s early experiences.

Illustration: Matt Moore

Contrary to texts, schemata are recalled through mental representations or images. While schemas allow for a smoother learning process, they also bring about biases and distortions. They can alter how we attend to or remember information and can cause one to overlook other aspects of a stimulus. Encountering objects or phenomenon in new ways can revise and refine our schemas. Let me consider a child who was bitten by a dog. The experience would automatically deter him/her from petting or going close to a dog or another animal in the future. However, for a child who was never bitten by a dog, he/she would not fear a dog and would try to pet it. In case one, the memory of the dog biting incident becomes ingrained in the individual because of which he/she may slowly become fearful of dogs and tend to avoid them for safety purposes. In case two, the absence of any such memory promotes the feelings of comforting a dog. Thus that experience allows them to think that other domestic animals are safe to pet too. In both cases, there is a bias that is formed. At the same time, the first case clearly depicts the reason for the fear of dogs. It also creates a misinterpretation that all dogs, in general, are going to cause harm. Similarly in the second case, the comfort of petting a dog and the ensued assurance of safety may not always apply to other dogs and animals, in which case the child may end up petting a street dog who may not necessarily be friendly.

In both instances, dogs are a common feature, and as we recall our earlier experiences with dogs under safe/harmful categories, the pattern of thoughts and behaviors that followed is triggered. We then relate the prior learning to the current scenario. In this way, schemas are said to be mental representations or maps on which we tend to base our future thoughts and actions. They have a substantial influence on our attitudes and perceptions of the world. They are rigid knowledge structures and harder to identify and refine when compared to heuristics and biases. We tend to generalize all dogs as harmful after experiencing a distressing instance involving a dog. It makes it harder for us to analyze and accept the truth that not every dog is as violent as the one dog we were unfortunately bitten by. Therefore, when new information is processed, we mould it in a way that we deem suitable for us. This also results in making and changing our attitudes and beliefs more complicated. This is an example of an event schema.

Schemas can also extend to persons, roles, social experiences and the idea of our self. There are various ways in which we can make an effort to actively understand our own views and those of others. Some times, as we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, we change our assumptions and understand other’s worldviews. We also slowly begin to question our own thoughts and attitudes. Complementing this with some meta-cognitive reflections, and we’re sure to move towards understanding the sources of schemas and anticipating how our past experiences may determine our future actions. And in the process, we become more accepting and flexible in our views because we move from egotism to ecology.

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