This is the second of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.
Graham Taylor: What would be some other examples of what you are calling ‘brain fitness skills’?
Robin Phillips: Another brain fitness skill—and this is one that I feel very strongly about—is the ability to create schemas. In a world where all of us increasingly have access to the same information, the successful people will increasingly be those who can connect the various fields of knowledge and create frameworks for integrating different ideas, fields and facts. All of our minds do this naturally to some extent since the ability to create schemas is one of the most fundamental ways the human brain organizes the vast array of data stored in our long-term memories. You see…
GT: Sorry to interrupt you Robin, but can you explain for our readers what exactly a schema actually is?
RP: Oh, sorry. Yes, the brain’s long-term memory stores information in schematic structures that provide a framework by which we simplify and find meaning in what would otherwise be a vast warehouse of disconnected facts and memories. Schemas are the networks of associations by which the brain organizing everything into meaningful patterns. The brain often does this when we sleep, which is why sometimes the things we find confusing make more sense in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
We’ve probably all seen people who have an ability to learn information quickly, perhaps when studying for a test, but then they forget it afterwards, and then we know other people who are able to achieve content mastery. What’s the difference? The difference is that in order for content mastery to occur, let alone understanding and wisdom, the brain has to move beyond massed practice and even memorizing; rather, the brain needs to start schematizing. This is because schemas serve as hooks on which to fasten new information. Without our brain’s ability to create schemas, without a sense of the connectedness of things, everything we learn would be simply a random collection of disconnected facts and there would never be any true understanding.
Nicholas Carr puts it like this in his book The Shallows:
“…brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or ‘schemas.’ By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richenss to our thinking. ‘Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,’ says Sweller. ‘We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.’
“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”
Carr goes on to point out that although the mental skill of schema formation is needed today more than ever, it is in jeopardy from technologies that orient us towards a state of continuous partial attention. As concentrated attention spans and focus become replaced by broad attention ranges and multitasking, what is lost is the type of slow, methodical, systematic and linear cognition that favors the formation of schemas in the long-term memory. In order for the brain to build up schemas effectively, a person has to reflect deeply about her life and what she has learned, and this reflection needs to occur in a slow and undistracted manner. When this is not the case, or when we form schemas badly, then the brain easily falls prey to oversimplifications. We see this all the time in our public political discourse, where issues are deliberated upon in isolated compartments that are often dominated by ideology, resulting in gross oversimplifications.
Also, the brain has to be nimble and flexible enough to adjust our schemas in light of new information we receive through knowledge, experience and personal growth. Sometimes we learn or experience things that do not fit within our existing neurological schemas, and so the brain has to alter existing schemas or create new neuro pathways, a process known as accommodation. That’s where intellectual humility, mental flexibility and open-mindedness become really important. But when our thinking is dominated by impressions, by emotional reasoning or ideology, then we become closed-minded and stuck in schemas that can actually detach us from reality.
The solution is to constantly engage in deep intellectual reflection, to eschew what Socrates called “the unexamined life.” Deep intellectual reflection is to a healthy brain like water is to a healthy plant. People knew that since before Socrates, but now we have the brain science to go with it. One of my favorite brain researchers, Dr. Caroline Leaf, has shown that when we engage in right patterns of thinking, including deep intellectual thought, we actually initiate material changes in the physical structure of the brain.
You can also read about this in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself. Norman Doidge isn’t a brain scientist—he’s a psychologist who became interested in neuroplasticity because of the therapeutic implications—but he does do an incredible job of summarizing some of the most important recent discoveries on the plasticity of the brain. What all of this research is showing is that the brain is like a muscle: you get out of it what you put into it.
Getting back to the subject of schemas, I just want to say that the cash-value of being able to form schemas goes way beyond merely being able to remember information. Now there certainly is a reciprocal link between memory and schemas: the better we are at forming schemas the more we’ll be able to remember, and the more we remember the more material will be in our brain for forming new schemas. But the real value of being able to form schemas is that it enables us to bring mental and emotional order out of chaos. Our brain’s ability to form schemas, to connect new information we learn to past knowledge, to create conceptual frameworks in which to situate what we learn, all of this is necessary before we can even begin knowing what to value, which standards to follow, what ends to pursue, what questions to ask, and before we can even know what human flourishing even looks life. None of this is possible without slow and quiet contemplation on the objects of our knowledge—taking a step back from the tyranny of the urgent, a step back from the burden of information overload, and a step back from the fast-paced life of constant activity, continual mental noise and digital saturation. By thus stepping back and thinking deeply, we create the conditions in which the brain is able to form schemas. I like the way Tracy Lee Simmons talked about deep reflective thinking in his book Climbing Parnassus:
“Impetuosity does not reflect. The superannuated, ever-changing mind cannot speak to the whole of life. It cannot contemplate; it cannot assign value. It can drive us to build new roads and bridges, but it cannot explain where we want to go. It can build rockets to Mars and beyond, but it cannot tell us whether it’s wise to go there. It cannot answer questions it long ago lost the wisdom to ask. The life of the mind and soul it leaves bereft of standards, those talking points of judgment, which are acquired only with time and patient effort.”
GT: It seems like in a variety of ways our society subtly trains us to focus on the more shallow and immediate aspects of life and social interaction while neglecting the type of quiet attentiveness (including slow and steady reflection on the content of our memories) that is a precondition to the formation of schemas. Why do you think that, as a whole, we don’t tend to place sufficient value on the role that schemas play in mental fitness?
RP: That’s a great question Graham! There are certainly many cultural, social and technological factors that atrophy our brain’s ability to form schemas effectively. The way we use social media has a lot to do with it, as well as the way common patterns of using the internet are rewiring our brains to prefer what is shallow, disconnected and transitory over the slower and richer patterns of deep thinking that enable schemas to form in the brain. Furthermore, the research shows that multitasking, information overload and sleep deprivation significantly weaken the brain’s ability to organize information into meaningful schemas.
But if I understand your question, it’s a little more focused. You seem to be asking why common understandings of brain fitness tend to neglect this important feature. Among neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and intelligence experts, there isn’t any doubt about the important role schemas play in enabling us to recall information and to meaningfully relate what we know to ourselves and the world. But a lot of this research is still quite new and hasn’t filtered down to the man or woman on the street.
But it isn’t just that the research on schemas hasn’t been mainstreamed in the way the concept of emotional intelligence has been (or is beginning to); it’s also—and this is a point Neal Postman brought out in his book about television Amusing Ourselves to Death—that different societies are oriented to rely on different types of abilities as being sign-posts of a good brain and of being symbolic of wisdom. In discussing the web of reciprocities between media and epistemology, Postman points out that even the concept of truth is conceived by each culture “as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial and irrelevant.” These symbolic forms or sign-posts often emerge out of the types of knowledge that prove useful in a given society. For example, in oral societies where the identity and even survival of the tribe depended on the transmission of a shared memory, it was the person who could recite the most wise sayings and proverbs that was often considered the wisest.
Or again, in ancient Athens where the absence of a police force meant that a person’s only recourse to justice was litigation, and where the absence of professional lawyers meant that each citizen had be prepared to speak persuasively on his own behalf, the people who were seen to possess the greatest intelligence were those who excelled in rhetoric. This led to a class of teachers who advertised themselves as being able to teach the art of making impressive speeches proving nonsensical propositions. Some rhetoric experts were perceived to be so mentally fit and agile that they could literally go up to someone and prove that nothing exists. This formed part of the backdrop to Aristotle’s systemization of the laws of logic: Aristotle wanted people to have the tools for analyzing speeches that might be strong on rhetoric but weak on logic. It took a while for the laws of logic to acquire more traction than sophistry within the public discourse, but when they did (propelled by the progressive hegemony of written texts, which orients a culture towards sequential and linear thought) gradually new symbols emerged for what mental fitness looked like.
The point is that different cultures prize different symbols and signposts as being indicative of mental fitness. We no longer consider the ability to prove nonsense to be indicative of a fit brain anymore—quite the opposite in fact. However, our culture has its own blindspots that may prove to be just as staggering to future generations. For example, many people today will boast about their ability at multitask as if that indicates a fit brain. However, more and more research is showing that multitasking is actually bad for the brain.
Anyway, to come back to my point, although we could think of notable exceptions, nevertheless we can generally say that just as oral cultures have tended to esteem those who could quote the most wise sayings, and just as a litigious culture like 5th century BC Athens tended to esteem those who excelled in the rhetorical arts, and just as a reading-based cultures have esteemed those who could reason in the type of linear and sequential way that is favored by the book, so the digital age has seems to be orienting us towards esteeming those whose brains work like a good computer: those who can perform many operations at once (what we call multitasking), those who can calculate quickly and recall lots of information. But none of these things are necessarily indicative of a healthy brain and it is a mistake to judge us by the standard of our machines. The irony is that many people are arguing that the computer has actually diminished the need for humans to remember as much information and to calculate. In a world where everyone has access to the same information, the leaders will be those whose minds are able to do the things that computers cannot, like putting ideas together and making connections between things, or like thinking outside the box, asking questions that no one else has asked, or engaging in slow and thoughtful meditative thinking.
You know, as I read writings from the age of steam power, I am impressed by how quickly writers defaulted to the steam engine when they needed a metaphor to describe the human condition or even the workings of the human body. We seem to be doing the same thing now with our digital machines, with the result that we can begin to unconsciously use the same criteria for assessing a good brain that we might use for assessing a good computer. Daniel Goleman brought this out in his book Focus which I referred to earlier. He wrote that “In a complex world where almost everyone has access to the same information, new value arises from the original synthesis, from putting ideas together in novel ways, and from smart questions that open up untapped potential. Creative insights entail joining elements in a useful, fresh way.” Goleman also shared how the 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, warned of a time when our technologies might lead us to think that there is only one correct way of thinking:
“Way back in the 1950s the philosophy Martin Heidegger warned against a looming ‘tide of technological revolution’ that might ‘so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be…the only way of thinking.’ That would come at the loss of ‘meditative thinking,’ a mode of reflection he saw as the essence of our humanity.
“I hear Heidegger’s warning in terms of the erosion of an ability at the core of reflection, the capacity to sustain attention to an ongoing narrative. Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet.”