Schemata everywhere: or Brains do Cool Things

You know how when you learn a new word, you suddenly hear it everywhere? On the radio, on the news, at the gym…ok, maybe not at the gym… but you are suddenly hyper aware of this word that you probably heard before but just ignored because you didn’t totally know what it meant? (or maybe that’s just me) That’s happened to me these past few weeks on a more conceptual scale. As in we discussed a concept in one of my library school classes and now I see it everywhere.

Our discussion was about how the brain processes information, and was centered around a chapter from a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know by E.D. Hirsch Jr. Now, I want to preface this by saying that there were many opinions Hirsch expressed that I do not agree with, however his chapter on schema was very interesting to me. He talked about how short term memory is incredibly limited– like a few seconds– and so when our brain is confronted with more than about 6 small things to process it has to chunk them together to process them and store them in long term memory. It’s why we break up phone numbers into sets of 3’s and 4’s. Instead of remembering 7 separate pieces of information, the brain only has to remember 2 because we’ve grouped the 7 numbers into 2 groups.

It works this way for words too. When we see the sentence: My cat is very cute. A beginning reader sees m-y-c-a-t-i-s-v-e-r-y-c-u-t-e. That is 16 pieces of information. A more proficient reader sees my-cat-is-very-cute. That is 5 piece of information. An advanced reader processes the whole sentence at once, accessing knowledge of what a cat is, what cute means, who the author is and whether or not the reader agrees with this statement. This is why reading books about entirely new subjects, or articles for a new intro class take so much longer to read. We have to process each word, then put it together, then process the sentence as a whole and can’t just instantly access all the background knowledge. Once we become more familiar with a topic, then our brains call up all the background knowledge instantly. Hirsch calls this background knowledge that we need in order to understand what we are reading a schemata. We have a million different schemata in our brains that we access all the time.

An interesting example of this that Hirsch gave was an experiment in both novice and expert chess players. A board in the middle of a game was shown to both novice and chess players for about 6 seconds and then asked the person to recreate the board. Novice players were only able to place about 6 pieces, while expert players were able to place the entire board correctly. This is because expert players didn’t see a number of chess pieces, they saw moves that had been played or were being set up. Their brain chunked the information into bigger pieces they could use. Then the same people were shown a chess board with pieces placed randomly on it. This time the experts did no better than the novice players, because there was no schemata in place to access. So this whole background knowledge and way that the brain processes information is not just limited to learning to read.

This all went through my head this week as I was walking home from my dance class. But before I explain why, let me establish some schemata for you as you have no idea what I’m talking about.

I wanted to dance before I learned to walk, and I spent my entire pre-adult life dancing regularly. I studied ballet at a pretty hard-core studio, dance roles in full length ballets, did summer workshops, and dreamed of being Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. I suffered through blisters and pain to dance en pointe, and subjected myself willingly-gladly even- to the unforgiving image of myself in a mirror attempting to be graceful with my leg hovering above my head. And I friggin loved it. I loved dancing. It was the closest I could get to flying. It takes long long LONG hours to get there, but when you do it’s the most amazing feeling ever. If I could have one wish granted by a fairy godmother it would be to be a professional dancer. To dance every day. Unfortunately my personal strand of DNA was never made aware of my dreams and I just don’t have the dancer body. I just don’t. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate my body. I have a pretty reasonable self image. But I’m too curvy and I build muscle the wrong way to make it professionally as the kind of dancer I wanted to be. It’s just the reality of my gene pool. And I got that memo in high school. So I danced through high school and when the time came for college, ballet and I took two different paths.

Every couple of years, though I remember how much I friggin love dancing and I find a way to take class. I took a jazz class in undergrad, I took some jazz classes in DC. And this semester I enrolled in a beginning jazz class. JUST. FOR. FUNZIES. Why jazz? Because its close enough to ballet that it is very familiar, but more free and fun.

OK. So now that you have acquired some background knowledge, back to the idea of schemata and why I was thinking about it after dance class. During class we’d been doing a new combination of moves and at one point the instructor asked me to demonstrate. Now, it is totally normal, totally a part of dance culture to do this. The instructor has a student do the moves slowly and comments, pointing out small things the dancer is doing that make her successful at this particular combination in order to help other students learn. After class one of the other students in the class, very sweetly, said he liked standing behind me so he could follow what I was doing and said I catch on to things really fast. I replied that I’d been dancing literally my whole life and he breathed a sigh of relief. “So you, like, know what you’re doing. That makes me feel better.” I reassured him that he was doing great and that it was a lot of information to process all at once and that I certainly had been there and knew how frustrating it was.

So as I walked home I thought about how it was my built-in schemata that made me successful in this particular setting. I have 15 years of background knowledge that I access every time I lift my arm. Every time I move my leg. Even new moves or combinations are just variations on things I’ve done literally hundreds of times. I’ve held my arms in an open 3rd position so many times I don’t have to focus on that. It is so much harder when you have to think about your arms and your feet and your legs and your torso and and and… When we learn 32 beat combinations, I process about 4 different chunks of information, whereas someone new to dance processes each of the 32 moves. It’s all about accessing schemata. This is also why I stick to jazz and why the only tap class I ever took was incredibly difficult for me. My ballet schemata didn’t help me in tap and I was super frustrated all the time.

So now I see schemata everywhere. I see it in the way that I much prefer using Apple computers because I know where all the things are. In the way that I drive slower and am more stressed out driving in cities that I don’t know. In the way when you make a new friend you have to go back and give lots of explanation about stories, but with my BFF’s I can just say one sentence to convey the same thing. I see it in how once you’ve sung a Bach cantata you can sight read any of them because they all sound the same.

Why is this important? Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just interesting to me. But I wonder if we were more aware of how we process information at the most basic level in our brains, if it would make us more self aware? Would it influence how we interact with others? Would we learn better? Teach better? Like most conversations I have in library school, I don’t have any definite answers. But at the very least it gives me something to think about while I’m walking home from class.


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