Using Schemas as an Aperture Into Perception

After scavenging the internet for ‘expert bloggers’ of psychology, I finally settled with a lady that I am not the most enthusiastic about. Her name is Dr Melanie Greenberg and she is a psychologist in Mill Valley, California. She offers individual and couples therapy to clients struggling with relationship issues and life stress.

The reason I’m not the fondest is the way she has been writing her articles on her blog. In one article she writes about how practicing self-compassion can help someone feeling unworthy, but she doesn’t provide anything of substance. In another – titled “50 Encouraging Things to Say to Yourself” (agh!) – she offhandedly mentions her clients, appeals to people that lack love and encouragement, and proceeds to list fifty sayings a la “You’re doing the best you can”. On the flip-side, perhaps I am too quick to judge this practitioner for being of no novel understanding and a sellout. Her intentions are endearing and number 6 on her list, “This too will pass”, although an incorrectly translated Buddhist saying, is something I can resonate with.

I chose her article: How to Identify and Heal Negative Core Beliefs

Before I summarize, I should explain Schemas. They are preconceived mental structures;  “a concept or framework that organizes and interprets information a mental structure that represents some aspect of the world. … Examples of schemata include stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews, and archetypes.” They are our way of familiarizing the world, but when interacting with our filter of perception, can impact what we perceive as our reality.

Like her other articles, she starts with appealing to persons that feel damaged. She explains that negative schemas can make us interact with the world in a way we do not desire. She covers examples of negative schemas, like:

  • DEFECTIVENESS – You feel there is something wrong with you, that you are unlovable, incompetent, or “bad.”  You don’t trust your own judgment and don’t feel you deserve good treatment.

She explains how schemas can limit our lives and relationships, and then finally how schema therapy can help, in such a way that makes me do a double-take and question the legitimacy of the entire article, but I digress.

What is interesting here is the concept of schemas and how they relate to our perception of reality.

To begin, Melanie mentioned two interesting schemas:

  • How we deserve to feel
  • How we should expect to be treated by the world

These beliefs are held close to heart and impacts everything you do in life. I know people that give very different answers to these two questions. My psychology teacher in High School was of the belief that we can only feel happy for so long until we would run out of ‘happiness-molecules’. I’m not going to go into the complex theories of neuroscience, but its various systems of neurotransmitters, endorphins, hormones, and re-uptake mechanisms, turns her schema into a limiting belief. And this is the point that is so interesting, that when we are of an opinion, it becomes a part of our identity and therefore subject to our.. subjectivity, so to say. When these beliefs are discredited, it brings us to question our ability of judgement, our understanding, and whatever intricate belief-structures we have created. It is simply easier to ignore conflicting information than to change core beliefs. This reminds me of 15 year-old me trying to convince my mother that weightlifting does indeed not stunt growth, but despite hard evidence, a mother is stern in her beliefs.

Is it perhaps a survival mechanism? Personally I think most things psychology or pertaining to biology can be explained by evolutionary theory. We assume that we interpret the world like it is, but many die without becoming aware of their limitations. We can only interpret three dimensions, heck, we can’t even prove that we live in three dimensions. If there were more dimensions, we would have no way of telling. Our perception is very much like that of a computer, Hermann von Helmholtz said: “We perceive the simplest or most likely perception that fits the stimulus configuration” (1960). Just like our mental processes, we familiarize objects perceived by our visual system.

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Our visual system is highly optimized for survival. We are extremely good at processing information, to spot movement, detect spatial orientation, and we have three color cones that allow us to contrast colors. Colors. Those 300 nanometers of the electromagnetic spectrum is all we use, because it is sufficient and effective for survival. Light does not even have a color property: we evoke color out of light! To believe that we know anything is vanity.

Even more interesting is that our primal reactions can interact with our conscious understanding of the world. An ‘attentional blink’ is a visual phenomenon, “when presented with a sequence of visual stimuli in rapid succession at the same spatial location on a screen, a participant will often fail to detect a second salient target occurring in succession if it is presented between 180-450 ms after the first one.” In this experiment, the subjects were shown numbers following a positive or negative word, and we can see how the negative word caught their attention, which in turn gave them better results.

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Having established that there is indeed a dissonance between reality and our perception, and then our initial perception and final interpretation, we can investigate ways to put it to use. Returning to schemas, becoming aware of our coping-techniques allows us to take a step back and objectively verify if reality and perception coincide. A subtle but popular mechanism is to subconsciously choose to interpret the experience differently, this can often be coupled with ignoring evidence that would disprove you. A concerned parent not letting their kids play outside because they believe it is a possibility their kid will be kidnapped, simply because they saw it on TV last month, yet the rates are at an all-time low.

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Or a person subject to believing a stereotype reaffirms their belief when presented with the occasional occurrence, despite much evidence saying otherwise. The list goes on and it is bothering beyond belief and when it comes to a point, it begs the question of exactly how rational are human beings? Simply because we value rational thought in Western society does not mean that there are not several bugs in our code, and we should really really consider that more when evaluating our own belief structures.

Humans will go a long way to protect their own identity and autonomy, in this case it is a battle of mental property. It seems that its validity is secondary to preservation and this to me seems like a primal instinct. Because we have this fallacy where we often misinterpret the world, it is important to recognize and attempt to make up for our shortcomings, as apposed to becoming subject to coping mechanisms. These insights raises questions such as: are all humans conscious, or perhaps our consciousness, like our self-awareness, must be nurtured? I say this because I recognize that I presently hold the belief that consciousness comes with a certain level of rationality, and that succumbing to coping mechanisms is a lack of self-awareness, which I equal to consciousness. Perhaps in the end it is best to have schemas that maximize positive personal influence, or perhaps no schemas at all? After all, there are no rules.

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