When a number of different situations occurring at different times seem to have aspects in common, they are eventually averaged together into an abstract memory framework. Built up out of the commonalities shared by different experiences, these frameworks are called schemas.

Schemas: Cognitive Framework for Experience and Memory

Schemas (somestimes called schemata) are organized sets of memories about sequences of events and their temporal and spatial characteristics, which are built up as we notice regularities in the environment.

Schemas are similar to Piaget’s schemes Opens in new window. Much of education is an attempt to build accurate schemas for specific topics like causes of the phases of the moon or reasons for animal camouflage.

One type of schema is a script. Scripts focus on how to do something. Much of education involves attempts to develop automatic scripts for behavior like counting, reading books, or solving arithmetic problems.

Like conceptual categories Opens in new window schemas are thought to be central structures of semantic memory Opens in new window.

When we encounter similar situations repeatedly, we do not remember every detail of each encounter. As with categories, this would require enormous amounts of memory Opens in new window and would be very wasteful. Rather, we form an abstract model of the situation, based on the invariant aspects our repeated encounters have in common.

The distinction between categories and schemas is of course not absolute. Schemas are a sort of metacategory; indeed, the element or “slots” of which a schema is composed are categories.

Both schemas and categories are sets of long-term memory Opens in new window associations. Schemas are larger sets of associations. The internal structure of schemas and categories may be somewhat different.

Categories Opens in new window are usually arranged hierarchically in levels, whereas schemas may be organized purely in terms of the structure of the situation (spatial or temporal) they represent (Mandler, 1979).

Schemas function as norms or sets of ideas about how things usually are, and allow us to move through situations without having to repeatedly consciously evaluate every detail and its meaning: they operate unconsciously to contextualize current experience. They are an important part of the semiactivated memory.

The operation of schematic memory contexts during perception is what makes the world seem familiar.

Extremely rapid processing through schematic connections between groups of neurons and neural maps is thought to be an important aspect of the selection of the perceptual information that enters short-term memory.

Schemas provide frameworks within which to evaluate novelty and thereby guide attention (Bregman, 1990).

Schemas are large patterns of generalized associations in memory that determines how whole situations are processed.

Our initial scanning of a situation reveals features that that then cause particular higher-level schematic connections to be selected.

In this sense, situations are processed through schemas. Selecting the correct schema to process a situation is the basis for the process of understanding.

This happens very quickly—usually within milliseconds of our seeing or hearing something and usually outside our conscious awareness: we deal quite well with many types of situations without ever consciously thinking about how to do it.

Note that the term understanding metaphorically refers to a process that takes place “underneath” the conscious mind—in the unconscious.

If most of the details of a situation fit reasonably well with a schema, our attention immediately moves to the details that do not—to the novel details that stand out against a background of the familiar. (This is a point at which “direct awareness” might be activated.)

If many of the details of the situation do not fit with the currently evoked schema, a search for a new schema—known as a “double take”—will usually cause us to focus consciousness on the unusual details of the situation.

Thus schemas are large networks of memories with potential associative connections. When particular scenes or events in the environment trigger our expectations, some of these memory networks become semiactivated; these semiactivated memories may enter our peripheral consciousness as a “feeling” of what is about to happen.

Schemas in the form of musical patterns and styles are largely responsible for our feelings of expectation while listening to a piece of music. This feeling usually stays on the fringes of the focus of consciousness.

In some instances, however, we may see or hear what we expect, rather than what is “really” there.

While our expectations usually do not intrude into our conscious present as hallucinations, the very possibility of hallucinations reminds us that a sizable part of our experience of the outside world does not come directly from that world (Dennett, 1991).

Schemas may be of physical scenes or of temporal event sequences. Because music consists of acoustical event sequences, we shall be primarily concerned with temporal schemas in the next entry titled schematic organization Opens in new window.