This Site is about You! (Part I)

What do you know about yourself?  What do you know about me?  What makes each of us ‘tick’?  These kinds of questions will be answered as directly as possible.  We begin with a short list of the evidence-based assumptions on which this website is based.  Each of the below listed claims has a substantial body of empirical results supporting it, spread over several decades of intensive academic research.  However, the present integration is new.  I hope that these ideas, their inter-relationships, and their implications become increasingly clear as we proceed.  I ask only that you temporarily suspend judgment, until you are at least half way through (i.e., finished with Part I).  After which, I beg for your comments, so that this approach can be better clarified, appropriately revised, or eventually falsified. 

1) We are our memory & metamemory (i.e., self – self-knowledge system).

2) A large part of our mental organization (i.e, our schemata) is shared with others (even more so with members of our own culture).  But some smaller part is unique to ourselves.  Our presently available conscious experience (including our emotional experience) is influenced by those schemata that are sufficiently activated.  The pattern of activation is different at different times.  But more importantly, our habitual patters of schematic activation are unique to ourselves and constitute an enduring aspect of our personality.  (end of Part I)

3) (Part II) The schematic organization of memory activation automatically defaults to overgeneralization, whereas discrimination needs to be learned (albeit such learning can sometimes rapidly occur).

4) Human language entails ‘mental representations’ (that are necessarily ‘about something’). Our innate language ability results in our often having an ongoing internal narrative.  The automatic cognitive processes entailed in language compel us to observe and/or create patterns that ‘make sense of your experience’ in terms of automatically assuming possible causes of our own and others’ experiences and behaviors.  These causal attributions connect the building blocks of our ‘story’.

These 4 lines of research are so inter-related that it is difficult to fully describe one without reference to the other 3.  Additionally, it is not possible to understand ourselves and others without clearly sensing that these concepts underlie the dynamics of one interdependent self-system.  Once a good intuitive grasp of these system dynamics is achieved, it will be easier to apply these understandings to ourselves and others to clarify and solve real-world problems.  Additionally, it will then also be possible to better refine and formalize this integration to inform further scientific investigation.

We are our MEMORY & METAMEMORY.  What is metamemory?  The prefix ‘meta’ means ‘of or about itself’, for example a book about books is a metabook.  Your METAMEMORY is your knowledge of your own memory. 

Metamemory was the first sub-area of the broader field of metacognition to be scientifically investigated.1  These first investigations, when integrated with other classic research in cognitive science now provide a foundation for a general framework for understanding ourselves, our friends, our enemies, strangers, and the infamous ‘they’.

What is MEMORY?  I could write a book here (but there are dozens of excellent books on human memory already written).2  Let’s cut to the chase!  MEMORY IS A NETWORK OF INFORMATION.  Although an important aspect of memory is that it is strongly ‘associative’ (that is, one idea ACTIVATES other ideas linked to it); this kind memory network has limited functionality, unless it can be strategically controlled.  In short, MEMORY DOES NOT WORK WELL UNLESS IT ‘KNOWS’ HOW TO WORK ITSELF (or unless you know how to work it).3  As you developed throughout your childhood, you learned how to use your memory more effectively.  That is, your metamemory developed along with your memory.4

Metamemory Theory. Classically, in the special case of memory dynamics, there are 2 levels.  1) MEMORY and 2) METAMEMORY (which is memory’s knowledge of itself).  MEMORY is controlled (modified) by METAMEMORY, which crucially contains an often imperfect5MODEL (i.e., representation) of MEMORY within itself.  INFORMATION flows from MEMORY to METAMEMORY to update and inform its control processes.  This memory-metamemory system allows you to control the mechanics of your memory (for example, how long you should search for an item in memory, whether to search at all, whether to make a guess or say that you don’t remember, etc.).


Memory and metamemory (our knowledge about our own memory) are interdependent.     

Monitoring information passes from memory to metamemoryControlling information passes from metamemory to memory.

Metamemory contains an imperfect model of memory.A more accurately informed model would facilitate efficient learning and retrieval.

In the more general case, the 2 levels are our ‘SELF’ and our ‘SELF-KNOWLEDGE’.  Here, instead of merely being concerned with the mechanics of ‘learning and memory retrieval per se’, we are concerned with how we think, act, and experience ourselves, others, and the world around us. And, because our interactions with others dynamically affect us, we are also concerned about how others think and act and their knowledge of us and the world.

The general case is entailed in the memory-metamemory system, because ‘who we are’ as well as ‘who we think we are’ (i.e., our self and self-knowledge) are encoded in our memories.  Theoretical and empirical work has been done on the relationship between self and memory.  Unpacking this work in this discussion would make the present discussion much too long.  These details will have to be saved for a later time.  The inpatient reader is referred to the work of Kihlstrom and Canter6.


I will first explain how cognitive psychologists conceptualize ‘how our minds work’.  These ideas have been verified by experiments, whose results are often surprising.  In the interest of fostering self-knowledge, I will now explain the foundational concept of ‘SCHEMATA’ (the singular of schemata is schema).

A schema is traditionally conceived as a ‘mental framework’ that guides our mental life (and behavior) when sufficiently engaged.  I regard it as a ‘network of mental information’ (i.e., a web of assumptions, concepts, and beliefs) that has a profound influence on our mental life when sufficiently ACTIVATED.  This latter definition reflects a more recent ‘connectionist’ view of the concept that James L. McClelland & David E. Rumelhart have advocated and I have adopted, because it efficiently explains many of the interesting phenomena associated with schemata as emergent properties of networks.  But you should know that before computer science discovered the amazing power and unique properties of networks, a schema was defined as a mental ‘framework’ rather than a mental ‘network’.  This is because a schema was originally conceived as a mental ‘structure’ that supports and organizes information rather than as an emergent property of the structure of the information itself.  Although the concept of ‘schema’ is arguably the most important foundational concept in modern cognitive psychology, some investigators (and many students) consider the concept difficult, overly abstract, vague, or poorly articulated; this is partly because explanations of the nature of their cognitive structure has changed over time.  For a very brief historical summary see Todd M. Gureckis and Robert L. Goldstone.

More History on the Development of Schema Theory.  Another early conception of schemata goes back to Plato’s idea of ‘forms’, where every concept corresponded to its ideal mathematically perfect form.  Similarly, in this early conception, every concept we have has a schema associated with it.  That is, classically there is a schema for every word that you know.  You have a schema for a house, a car, a plant, a pig, freedom, water, weather, anger, an opera, music, science, ecology, etc.  In this use of the term, it is your ‘abstract mental representation’ of each of these concepts.  For example, important to the ‘plant’ schema is that it is or at least was alive at one time, it is usually green in color, usually has hard cell walls, etc.  If I have a relatively good schema of a plant I can then classify things I have never seen before as either a plant or not a plant.  That is, I look to see what fits my abstract ‘mental representation’ of a plant.  The closer the fit, the more likely it is a plant.  A schema can be relatively simple or very elaborate.  Interestingly, some plants fit their schema better than other plants (the consequences of this observation has been extensively studied and has revealed fundamental knowledge about the mechanics of human memory).

Because a network is already strongly structured, the network conception of schemata is more parsimonious than the original conceptualization.  From here on out, I will use the more straightforward conceptualization of a schema as an implicit property of networks, which (it turns out) also more elegantly explains schematic ACTIVATION (and the filling in of missing information, known as part-whole completion).

Each schema has some degree of ‘activation’.  That is, the schema can be very unconscious, nearly conscious, dimly conscious, vary conscious or anything in between.  Here, degree of consciousness is equated with degree of ‘activation’.  Schema can be discussed in terms of unconscious activation or even without reference to any kind of consciousness at all, but since our primary concern here is self-knowledge, we will freely integrate the concept of consciousness (here simply meaning ‘awareness’) whenever it might be relevant or useful.

Schemata and memory.  I’m sure you have heard the terms ‘short-term memory’ and ‘long-term memory’.  Cognitive psychologists have very specific durations (that have been empirically determined) for these terms.  Short-term memory is usually about 20 seconds in duration and seldom clocks in at more than a few minutes duration (the precise time depends on the materials used and other aspects of the experimental situation).  It usually refers to newly encountered information. The duration of new short-term memories can be indefinitely extended via verbal rehearsal (i.e., repeating an item to yourself over and over -- as you might with a new phone number).  All memories that are recalled from more than a few minutes ago are considered long-term memories.  There are many empirically derived subtleties regarding both short and long term memory that are not of immediate concern for our discussion of schemata and memory.  Human memory has been experimentally studied for over a hundred years!

What presently concerns us is that short-term memory can also be conceived as that part of long-term memory that is ACTIVATED.  Here, instead of it only referring to new information, it refers to a subset of long-term memory that is sufficiently activated to be conscious (i.e., available to our awareness).  The full story is likely more complex than this (i.e., involve integration as well as activation), but we can save that discussion for a later time.  Additionally, the theoretical constructs explained here are an imperfect attempt at integrating theoretical descriptions developed more than 50 years ago (e.g., schemata viewed as mental frameworks) with those developed about 50 years ago (information processing and semantic networks), with more recent connectionist models.  A variety of newer models are currently under development (e.g., agent modeling, dynamical systems modeling).  Further exploration of these approaches would derail our present goal of understanding the gist of what we now know (which is quite a lot for our purposes).  Eventually, other sections of this website will address these deeper issues for those who are interested in (and have the patients and technical knowledge) to contribute toward their clarification.

Schematic Processing.  By ‘schematic processing’ I mean the many ways that cognitive psychologists have found our cognitive structural organization and its chronic patterns of activation to influence our mental life and behavior.  For example, since at least the 1930s it has been know that schema formation strongly influences learning and memory.  For a demonstration of just one of these early experiments (if you have not heard the story recently) click on the link below to hear both the story and the poem that follows.  If you have heard the 'War of the Ghosts' story before, you could write it down now and again after listening to it again.  These 2 pieces will be presented orally and take less than 5 minutes to listen to.  You should listen to both pieces one after the other uninterrupted.  Have a pen and paper or a word processor program nearby, because you will be asked to recall what you heard after you have finished listening to the pieces.  Be sure to set your volume high enough so you can hear well.  Play this sample sound file to set your volume to a comfortable level by clicking on the music icon at the end of this sentence (afterwards use the browser back arrow to return to this page) .  The story and poem are embeded as a mp3 audio file.  Click the icon at the end of this sentence to listen to them before reading any further (afterwards use the browser back arrow to return to this page) .  STOP READING AND LISTEN TO THE 2 PIECES.

Bartlett did a series of experiments using this story in 1932 to investigate patterns of memory recall.  He specifically created a Native American story with a loosely organized narrative to study how his research participants would impose their own schemata on the story.  Open this War of the Ghosts link and the printed story will appear (so you can compare your version to the story that was read).  You should circle items that were incorrectly recalled.  Especially note errors that are more consistent with your cultural schemata (things you might expect) versus what was actually said in the story.  Also, especially note things that you recalled that were not in the story and the things that you omitted. Open the link in the center of the page below to see ''The War of the Ghosts'' in order to correct your recall of the story.

The War of the Ghosts

Some people will recall a lot of material, whereas others will recall much less.  The poem was used as a distraction task to prevent recall from short-term memory (recall that short-term memory only lasts about 20 seconds).  One of the stronger predictors of amount recalled among individuals is age.  Right now, however, we are not concerned with the amount recalled, but rather with the pattern of recall, recall errors, recall omissions, and additions.  Bartlett had many different experimental conditions.  He varied the number of recall attempts and the time between recall attempts (sometimes many years after hearing the story).  In general, Bartlett found that most people found it extremely difficult to recall the story exactly, even after repeated readings, and hypothesized that, where the elements of the story failed to fit into the schemata of the listener, these elements were omitted from the recollection, or transformed into more familiar forms.  Subsequent research on our recall of previous events suggest that we frequently remember the details incorrectly, but have better recall of the ‘gist’ or main idea of what happened (at least from our point of view)!

I’m reviewing some of these older studies, so that you can better understand how schemata affect our everyday perceptions, memory, and experience.  Another classic demonstration of a schema as an ‘organizer’ of information is illustrated by reading the following passage:

“The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.”

If you respond like Brandsford and Johnson’s research participants you would have had great difficulty learning and accurately recalling this paragraph from long-term memory!  You can try it if you wish.

The researchers had 3 experimental conditions: 1) participants listened to the passage and after a brief delay tried to recall it, 2) participants were given a relevant schema, then listened to the passage and after a brief delay tried to recall it, 3) participants listened to the passage, then given the relevant schema and after a brief delay tried to recall it.

As previously stated, people in the study had great difficulty recalling the story without knowing the schema.  When given the schema BEFORE listening to the story people had much greater recall, but people given the schema after listening to the story, but before recall did no better than those never given the schema at all!  Therefore, it is much easier to learn things for which we have a pre-existing schema as long as that schema is activated BEFORE we encounter the material .  CLICK HERE for the relevant schema that was used.  Re-read the passage with this schema in mind.  Now it should make more sense.  Again, the big surprise here is that knowing the schema after reading the passage has no effect on our later remembering the passage, but knowing the schema before reading the passage dramatically improves our memory for it.

This effect is so powerful, that the famous French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used this as the cornerstone of his theory of how infants and children develop!  He coined the following 2 terms that capture this foundational mechanism:  ‘Assimilation’ is the integration of a new concept into a pre-existing schema, whereas ‘accommodation’ is creating a new schema.  The implications of this formulation revolutionized developmental psychology and took several books to unpack.  For example, the more schemata that infants, children, and adults acquire the more easily they will be able to learn.  Recent research has even determined that infants seem to be born with certain schemata (e.g., those necessary for recognizing a face).  These principles quickly became a cornerstone of educational psychology as well.  Not only are having the relevant schemata important for efficient learning, but the timing of when the schema is activated is also crucial.  Students that have a solid foundation in a difficult field of study will find it much easier to expand their learning than those who do not have solid schemata ready to absorb new related but different concepts.  I am spending a good deal of time introducing the concept of ‘schemata’, because it is so foundational to how your mind works.  Schemata (and the activation of schemata) powerfully affect what we notice, attend to, learn, and recall! 

Insightful research has been conducted on the relationship between ‘schematic processing’ and social perception and personality by social-cognitive psychologists.  I will describe a bit of this research, because it will be necessary for understanding how this all relates to you, your self-knowledge, and your knowledge of others.

To illustrate a point about schemata, I will first briefly describe a study done by social psychologists.  Students listened to a story consisting of two short paragraphs about a person’s activities and were asked to categorize that person as either basically friendly or basically unfriendly.  In one paragraph the person seemed to avoid talking to several people on his way to a store.  In the other paragraph the person talked to several people in the store he was shopping at. Students were randomly assigned to 2 groups.  There was no difference between the content of the story read to each group.  The only difference was the order in which the 2 paragraphs were read.  Results showed that the vast majority of students who heard the part of the story where the person talked to others first and later heard the part (where he did not talk) classified the person as basically friendly, on the other hand, the vast majority of students who hear the part of the story where the person did not talk to others at first (but later did talk to others) classified the person as basically unfriendly.  Here is an explanation based on 'schematic processing':  As the story was being read, a schema of that persons personality was activated, once activated, additional information was assimilated into that schema.  Students who head the friendly behaviors first interpreted the later behaviors through the lens of the friendly schema, whereas those who heard the unfriendly behaviors first used that to interpret the later friendly behaviors.  This is an example of how schema activation affects our perceptions of others and our decisions about them.  It also explains why first impressions are hard to ‘live down’.  If a new boss sees you working hard the first week on the job, even if you later 'slack off' your boss will see you as a 'hard working perosn' that is having a bad day or is 'resting' so you can work harder in the future, whereas if you at first viewed as a 'slacker', even if you later work hard, you are still viewd as a 'slacker' that is only temporally working hard for some other reason.  It can take a lot to overcome the initial first impression, because the schematic framework has to be changed. 

Early research by John Bargh investigated chronic schematic activation.  Although some of the schemata we have are only shared with other specialty groups of people (e.g., a physicist, mathematician, poet, painter, chef, sailor, pilot, shaman, etc. may only share certain schema with other members of their profession or culture) and even though peoples’ shared schemata may be subtly different from each other, overall, the vast majority of our schemata are shared with others.  For example, you and I both know what it means to be independent or honest or loyal or friendly.  We both have schema for each of these personality constructs.  And even though our idea of each of these constructs might be slightly different they are very similar.  This allows us to have words for each of these and to use these words effectively in our communications with one other.  The bigger difference among people seems to be in which schemata are chronically activated. 

John Bargh demonstrated that it was possible to unconsciously activate specific schemata in research participants only if they were especially sensitive to those specific schemata.  That is, only if they habitually tended to see reality through the lens of that particular schema.  The method of experimental activation was very subtle.  On an earlier occasion he asked his participants what personality characteristics were important to them, then he visually presented personality words subliminally (i.e., only for a few milliseconds time below the threshold of their conscious awareness using a sophisticated masking procedure) shortly before they made personality judgments about people.  He was able to affect their judgments about these people without their awareness of any influence; but only for the personality characteristics that they earlier reported being important to them.  These schemata were so easy to trigger that he could do it subliminally!  So even though we all walk around with similar schemata some of our schemata are much more easily activated than others!  Bargh used the term ‘schematic for’ to express this sensitivity.  One person may be schematic for ‘loyalty’, whereas another person may be schematic for ‘independence’.  The implication is that one person may be quick to judge a new acquaintance on whether or not they are loyal, whereas for another person loyalty may not be very important, but they would be super sensitive to any cues that might help them decide whether this new acquaintance was independent or not. 

I now want to explain a bit more about cognitive information networks.  We have omitted a technical description of connectionist networks, because our purpose is to first sketch  out the broad aspects of our and to save technical discussions for other sections of the website.  Here our goal is for a satisfying intuitive understanding of our own and others mental mechanics.  To further this goal, I’ll introduce the concept of ‘semantic networks’.

Concepts (e.g., words) are associated with each other in our minds.  These associations can be measured rather precisely by measuring the association strength between different words by a variety of methods.  One method is for me to call out a word and for you to say the first word that comes to mind when you hear that word.  Freud did this in order to get some idea of what certain words meant to his patients.  Cognitive psychologists have done this with hundreds of people, tabulated the results, and then published hundreds of pages of these tabulated results for many of the most common words of the English language.  It is a rather boring book (as you might guess) since it mostly consists of long lists of words where each word is followed by its most frequent associate, followed by its second most frequent associate, followed by its third most frequent, etc. down the line.  This information was very valuable to memory researchers like myself who wanted to know the associative properties of the words that they had their research participants memorize so that they could test hypotheses about the nature and organization of human memory.  I’m only telling you all this because this would be an example of a semantic network representing how words are most likely associated with each other in your mind.  Your close associations would be slightly different (since some words might have a special meaning for you) but mostly it would be similar to others.  If I said ‘white’ you would likely say ‘black’ or if you were from the US you might say ‘house’.  Additionally, each word would be associated with either a positive emotional meaning, a neutral meaning, or a negative emotional meaning.  For example, words like death, ugly, dirty, painful, morbid, torture, murder would have negative emotional meanings, whereas fun, happy, playful, open, yes, life, baby, wedding, celebration, would likely have positive emotional meaning.  The speed with which you can respond with a word when another word is give is a measure of how closely these 2 words are related to each other in your mind.  What about words like, lesbian, old, African, Mexican,  Arab, disabled?  Are these words closely associated with positive emotional words or with negative emotional words?  It would likely depend on the person's unconscious mental organization.  Now here is the interesting part.  It is possible to empirically measure the time between my calling out a word and when you first give your associated word (i.e., the reaction time for each associate) in order to get an accurate measure of the organization of YOUR semantic network.  Likewise, I could measure how closely associated a word in your network is related to positive emotional words versus negative emotional words.  This would give me a measure of how you felt about each word!  Not necessarily how you consciously feel, but rather how your automatic patterns of activation are organized.  The previous sentence needs some deep thought.  What exactly would this tell us?  Perhaps it would reveal the unconscious meaning of that word to you, or at least to the mind that you have to deal with day in and day out.  Further thought brings up interesting issues in the general sense of metamemory (like who are you?, how much control do you have anyway? how does 'control' work?).

Fortunately, I can give you an experience of what it might be like to uncover aspects of your own mental organization.  Researchers have been doing this kind of measurement for the last 20 years; although, for the most part, they have been avoiding the metacognitive issues involved.  Initially, these tests were used to study unconscious prejudice.  But it is now time to use this methodology to study unconscious mental organization (i.e., schematic processing) more generally.  Trying out several of these will give you deeper insight into the nature of schematic networks and the organization of your own mind.  These kind of measurements are more accurate if delivered in your native tongue, so notice the national flagues on the opening page of the following website: Implicit Association Test (IAT). Go to this website and take several of the DEMONSTRATION versions of these tests on topics of your choice (pick edgy topics for you as well as less edgy ones).  Record your conscious attittude toward each concept measured (in terms of where your attitude might be COMPARED TO THE AVERAGE PERSON), BEFORE taking each test.  The results may agree with your conscious attitude toward the constructs you measure or they may be different.  This test captures the very heart of the issues we are dealing with on this website (self-knowledge), so DO NOT SKIP THIS DEMONSTRATION. 


We are about half-way through our 4 evidence based assumptions.  Here they are again (hopefully, you understand a bit more than you did about metamemory in general and schemata).

1) We are our memory & metamemory (i.e., self – self-knowledge system).

2) A large part of our mental organization (i.e, our schemata) is shared with others (even more so with members of our own culture).  But some smaller part is unique to ourselves.  Our presently available conscious experience (including our emotional experience) is influenced by those schemata that are sufficiently activated.  The pattern of activation is different at different times.  But more importantly, our habitual patters of schematic activation are unique to ourselves and constitute an enduring aspect of our personality.  (end of Part I)


Try the above demonstrations and give me some feedback using the comments function.



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