Schemas: Making sense of our biological automations.

December 16, 2023

Two humans dressed up as robots, saying "Beep Boop Beep" to each other with funny looks on their faces.

Ah, biology! Perhaps it is most intimately known in our awkward high school years where we came face-to-face with it in lab dissections…and puberty. But the embodied principles of ATP synthesis and mitochondria don’t stop there. In plain English, we learned that we are what we eat; transforming nutrients into useful things in our bodies. And in life outside the classroom, we learned what to eat to provide fuel for our growth.

Now, do you think about this digestive process when you eat something? No – because our bodies have evolved to do this unconsciously.

So too it is with other things we consume: experiences are processed and shape both our minds and bodies alike. And similarly, the internal optimizations of the brain happen without us knowing. Much like in high school biology class, it’s worth shining a light on this so we can better understand when this process is serving us well and…not so well.

Our experiences establish our unique personal schemas: mental frameworks or structures that exist in our minds to help us organize, interpret, and make sense of the world around us. Schemas can be thought of as lenses that filter the stimuli coming through to our senses. As a result, our responses to experiences can become quicker, even automatic.

Are automatic reactions bad? Well, unfettered defensiveness can certainly make situations messier. And we’ve all had experiences where our emotions get the better of us.

But are all automations bad?

In any given moment, a lot of information is coming at us. If we had to think about everything, it would be completely overwhelming.

Consider a Friday luncheon with your colleague. If you had to think about each detail intimately, lunch would not be a very enjoyable experience:

Squeeze fingers around fork. Lift fork. Stab slippery salad greens with fork three times until efforts are rewarded. Lift fork to mouth. Open mouth. Put fork in mouth. Close mouth and remove fork. Chew chew chew…on and on, masticating on each necessary detail.

Yet somehow, we can manage to carry on a conversation with our mouths full – while tuning out the lesser details so that we can focus. We lift the fork to our lips and enjoy tasty sustenance with grace.

Another day, another luncheon. Sitting next to a toddler who is painstakingly lifting one pea at a time to her mouth (and occasionally throwing one to the floor), we bear witness to how the unconscious automations we take for granted are trained and developed. Over the years, the action of feeding herself will become refined (hopefully), so that she can enjoy a meal and a conversation without accidentally biting her fork or flicking food off her plate (ideally).

Automations can, indeed, be rather useful.

Dominoes fall against each other

Schemas and their resulting automations show up not just as physical manifestations, but also social ones. From the dynamics of the family nest and the playground, we step out into the workplace and the world; past interactions building our unique schemas from which our reactions flow. Informed by experience, each of our mental maps develop differently. And, it turns out, the resultant viewpoints on what is acceptable behaviour do not always match up.

So consider this: how might this process of pre-cognitive awareness, meaning-making, and automatic response play out in the face of conflict?

When we apply these automations to situations of conflict, we lose the ability to respond to that-which-we-face objectively because we become robotic. We may feel completely in control of our thinking and actions, but the reality is that we have subconscious internal domino effects where one trigger covertly leads to another – which lends a risky element to their existence. Though we think that our reaction is happening because we’re choosing it, it is instead an automatic process based on the past that is very mechanical.

Can you think of a reflexive habit that is causing problems in your relationships? Don’t worry – we all have them. Rather than push them away, we can work with our biology.

Learn more about schemas as lenses and automations in our free online webinar, Conflict 101: Demystifying Conflict Through a Psychological Approach. In it, we dive deeper into these concepts and how to improve our schemas.

We can make big changes – one small step at a time.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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