Nicholas Carr on Schema Formation

In Part 2 of my interview with Graham Taylor about brain fitness, I shared what I learned from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows about mental schemas:

The Shallows What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsWe’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: “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.”“…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.’”

Carr points 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.