Neurobiological bases for cognitive schema

By Matthew Bennett; Copyright 2000

The earliest clinical conceptions of schemas is evident in pioneering works of Pierre Janet, who posited the existence of schemas moderated by memory processes which acted as mental organizing systems. When acting smoothly and functionally, these schemas would incorporate new information into existing knowledge structures resulting in mental order and organization (Davies, 1996). Piaget (1962) elaborated on these early concepts through his notions of accommodation and assimilation, theorizing that psychic trauma involved uncharacteristic events with a strong affective valence which could not be readily assimilated into the existing schema structures.

Piaget sought to investigate some of the psychological functions which do the kind of information processing later ascribed to the schemas. Traditionally, cognitive theory has distinguished two “levels” of cognitive phenomena: automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, and schemas and named variously in the literature as “schemata”).

Automatic thoughts are described as “a surface level of cognition that can be brought into awareness fairly readily” (Mahoney, 1995, p. 42). They represent spontaneous cognitive leaps which reflect the individual’s predisposition to interpret reality in a certain way. In this sense automatic thoughts can be taken as “symptoms” of the deeper schemas. Frequently-cited examples of automatic thoughts are the readiness with which depressed persons interpret events in such a way as to cast themselves as worthless or helpless, whereas anxious persons tend to experience automatic thoughts concerned with danger and threat.

Cognitive distortions are taken to be the epistemological interface between automatic thoughts and the more generalized schemas. True to the information-processing model so influential in cognitive theory, cognitive distortions have been defined by Robins & Hayes (1995) this way:

“Cognitive distortions are links between dysfunctional schemata and automatic thoughts. When new information or memories are cognitively processed, the information often is distorted or biased to fit a relevant schema. The result of this biased appraisal may then become accessible to consciousness in the form of automatic thoughts or images” (p. 43).

If automatic thoughts are the surface-level phenomenon and cognitive distortions the mid-level processing biases which generate them, then the schemas are the generative engines of the whole cognitive system. Aaron Beck defined a schema as “a structure for screening, coding, and evaluating the stimuli that impinge upon an organism… On the basis of the matrix of schemas, the individual is able to orient himself in relation to time and space and to categorize an interpret experiences in a meaningful way” (Beck, 1967, p. 419). There is, of course, no perfect unanimity in the operationalization of the construct, but in general schema are assumed to be “working models” composed of thematically related belief systems which are assembled during the course of life experience. Some models (see below) emphasize early experience in the formation of schemas, but the practice of cognitive-oriented psychotherapy depends on the presumption that they may be modified at any time during life. The schema owed its integrity on the processing biases which they generate, which help to ensure that in the midst of everyday interpersonal experience, data which most closely fits the schema will be “encoded” most quickly and efficiently.

More recently, Young has added to this paradigm an emphasis on a “deeper” level of cognition, termed early maladaptive schemas. Young defines these “deep” schemas as “broad, pervasive themes regarding oneself and one’s relationship to others, developed during childhood and elaborated throughout one’s lifetime, which are dysfunctional to a significant degree” (Young, 1994). According to Young’s formulation, early schemas develop “as the result of ongoing, dysfunctional experiences with parents, siblings, and peers during childhood and develop as children attempt to make sense of their experiences and to avoid further pain” (McGinn and Young, 1996). Young’s conceptions of the early maladaptive schemas has received empirical support in Schmidt et al (1995). These authors identified orthogonal factors corresponding to early maladaptive schemas (EMSs), which are posited to rest “at the core of the individual’s self concept” but which “[prevent] realistic processing of schema-inconsistent information.”

As Schmidt et al. noted, Young’s concept of the EMS is theoretically consistent with more classical formulations of schemas (Beck, 1967; Segal, 1988) with a significant exception: Young’s EMSs are unconditional (“I am unlovable”) while Beck’s conception of the schema was conditional (“If I can please others all the time, I will be loved”). This distinction does not replace or invalidate Beck’s conceptualization of schemas, but rather suggests that there are hierarchical “layers” of schemas which may be reduced to the most basic, fundamental, unconditional, and presumably unconscious, presumptions.

Parallel neuropsychological analysis of such theoretical structures has been hampered by limitations on the development of technique and methodology. Until very recently, neuropsychological research has tended to focus upon “lower-order,” more directly observable or representable brain processes. At the same time, cognitive theory has continued along the more theoretical and postulative track, generating plausible models first and then checking for experimental and, more rarely, neuropsychological viability. Piaget, along with his moralist counterpart Lawrence Kohlberg, set out to describe mental representations within a general epistemological framework; that is to say, he saw a place for a scientific conceptualization of the mental representation as a new and different way of characterizing psychological processes. Flanagan (1989) proposed that what Piaget (and Kohlberg) had in mind was to “chart their way between the Scylla of naïve empiricism and the Charybdis of extreme nativism and arrive at some empirically and philosophically safe port” (p. 119). In this sense, Piaget sought to chart a middle passage between the hard behaviorists and their vision of the mind as tabula rasa on one hand, and the nativists who saw human nature as determined by heredity on the other hand. That is to say, Piaget and others have sought to derive models which make sense at the behavioral level, but which also demonstrate viable “biological” substrates.

The constructivists comprise a sort of “post-modern” movement within the cognitive school. Growing out of the literatures of evolutionary epistemology, constructivism seeks to shift focus away from the traditional analysis of beliefs and perceptions and back to the individual’s own activity as the basic mediator of experience. the constructivists presume that individual organisms actively explore their environments and organize experience around pro-active, creative, and, significantly, tacit expectations, hypotheses, and theories (see Weimer, 1975). The term constructivism itself implies “form-giving,” which in turn suggests that the individual becomes the architect of her experiences and the world-models she bases on them; this conceptualization significantly differs from the passive receptacle described by the traditional associationist paradigm. Constructivism may represent an attempt to fulfill Piaget’s incomplete attempts to divine underlying mechanisms for the categorization of experience. Mahoney et al. (1995) outline three essential features of the constructivist approach: the proactive nature of the cognitive process, nuclear morphogenic structure, and self-organizing development.

Constructive theory invokes the proactive nature of the cognitive process in arguing that the individual constructs reality not merely on the basis of data supplied by the five senses, but “in formare, that which is formed from within” (p. 105). Mahoney et al. note that radical constructivism goes so far as to assume that “all experienced order is self-generated and organismically recursive” (p.105). Clearly then, what makes for radicalism in one model would qualify for old-school traditionalism in another! Once again the constructivists seem to be “circling back” towards nativism, which is far from a radical new, maverick hypothesis but rather the long-standing other side of the equation long since neglected by traditional associationists in the cognitive-behavioral school.
Another very significant aspect of the proposed proactive nature of cognitive processes challenges the associationist tradition of objectivism: cognitive-behaviorist theory presumes that there must be an objective veracity to interpersonal reality against which the various schemas may be assessed in order to determine their relative degree of “reality distortion.” Constructivism, in high post modernist style, argues that since there is no “objective reality,” it doesn’t make sense to talk about “distortions” of reality. There are no cognitive distortions, just more or less viable hypotheses.

Mahoney et al. posit a second feature centering upon “nuclear morphogenic structure.” This construct implies a central core of processes which are protected from undue change from without, and which in turn limit the flexibility of the peripheral assumptions associated with them.

The third proposed aspect of constructivist conceptualization involves self-organizing development of the personality. Guidano (1987) describes the idea in the following way:

“The essential feature of this perspective considers the self-organizing ability of a human knowing system as a basic evolutionary constraint….The availability of this stable and structured self-identity permits continuous and coherent self-perception and self-evaluation in the face of temporal becoming and mutable reality” (p. 3).

In characterizing the constructivist take on self-organization, Mahoney et al. invoke the concept of autopoieses, involving spontaneously self-ordering complex phenomena. The authors recall the work of Manfred Eigen, who described autocatalytic “hypercycles” intended to bridge biological systems and patterns of thinking (see Eigen & Schuster, 1979). The hypercycles are described by Mahoney et al. (1995) as “certain dynamic patterns of energy exchange [which] afford the emergence of self-perpetuating structures which form the basis for higher-order life support processes in organic systems” (p. 110). Eigen’s conceptualization is just one way of operationalizing the emergence of stable knowledge systems from “random energy dynamics.” Ilya Prigogine (1980) approached the same problem from a somewhat different perspective by introducing “dissipative structures,” which resembles modern chaos theory in that functional disorganization at a fundamental level serves to effect deep structural reorganization of knowledge systems.

Since theoretical work on schemas has come about quite separately from actual neurological or neuropsychological research, it becomes necessary to seek out parallels between the former and the latter in order to postulate a neuropsychological substrate for the schemas. Piaget was one of the first to do this, and set out to describe mental representations within a general epistemological framework; that is to say, he saw a place for a scientific conceptualization of the mental representation as a new and different way of characterizing psychological processes. Flanagan (1989) proposed that what Piaget (and Kohlberg) had in mind was to “chart their way between the Scylla of naïve empiricism and the Charybdis of extreme nativism and arrive at some empirically and philosophically safe port” (p. 119). In this sense, Piaget sought to chart a middle passage between the hard behaviorists and their vision of the mind as tabula rasa on one hand, and the nativists who saw human nature as determined by heredity on the other hand. Of course, Piaget’s was not the first attempt in the history of human thought to reconcile these apparently opposite poles; the philosophical feud between the followers of Kant, with their promotion of the absolute, and the relativistic followers of Mill provides one historical example. It could be argued that Piaget and Beck were not even the first cognitive psychologists…Hume anticipated their models when he enumerated the three structural principles of the mind, called “laws of association”: resemblance, contiguity, and cause-and-effect. Hume’s prescription resembles modern attempts on the part of cognitive psychologists to identify the orthogonal organizing principles of human thought. Such discrete organizing principles even have their place in theoretical physics in the form of “strange attractors” which seem to bind both matter and energy.

However, Piaget appears to have attempted one of the earliest formulations within modern psychology to reconcile nativist and empiricist approaches, in the creation of the nascent field of cognitive-developmental constructivism. Piaget sought to circumnavigate the “excesses” of pure behaviorism by elaborating on the complexity of learned behaviors, and attempting to take into account observed neuropsychological functions. He achieved this end by postulating the unfolding development of developmental capacities which result not just in new experiences, but in qualitatively different experiences. That is to say, far from being the inert “storehouse of ideas” as Locke originally hypothesized, the mind is equipped to impose some kind of order on new experience, sorting them in a new way…via the schemas. Piaget counters nativism by highlighting the sensitivity of the developing mind to environmental conditions and to its apparent development of completely novel cognitive strategies for interacting with the environment. Flanagan (1989) summarized the argument this way:

“The thinking of an intelligent eighteen-year-old differs from the thinking of an intelligent one-year-old not only in content – for example, in thinking about sex, music and geometry as opposes to blocks, the sandbox, and the mother’s breast- but in form as well. The eighteen-year old is able to represent things to herself linguistically, to rotate geometrical figures mentally, to deploy deductive proof procedures, to make reliable inductive references, and to utilize unconsciously and unerringly the principles of conservation and transivity…” (p. 122)

A nativist response to the cognitive-developmental caveat is articulated by Fodor (in Flanagan, 1989): “it is never possible to learn a richer logic on the basis of a weaker logic, if what you mean by learning is hypothesis formation and confirmation” (p. 138). That is to say, it does not appear likely that the mind would be able to make up quantum-leap advancements in spatial perception out of whole cloth, without the ingredients for such an advancement already being present in some fashion in the construction of the developing brain. This counter-argument suggests that the more complex and refined cognitive processes vaunted by Piaget are somehow “already there” in a nascent state, ready to be accessed in the right way by a developing mind that already knows everything it is ever going to know. The existence of such “already there” elements has been labeled preformation. In supporting preformation, Fodor, of course, champions the nativist cause, along with his colleague Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s debate with Piaget on the nature and origin of psychological functions (such as speech) is one of the better-known arenas of contention within this area, and reflect the epistemological importance of the question (see Chomsky, 1980). Chomsky, Fodor, and the nativists respond to the associationist by repeating the classical formula: ex nihil nihil fit, nothing comes of nothing. The possibility of preformation, ore indeed any evidence of preformation, will naturally lead to a search for neuropsychological substrates which may account for such inborn facilities.

Quite apart from theoretical schemes designed to locate cognitive structures anatomically, recent work has attempted to investigate orthogonal factors determining interpersonal and social behavior via schemas and related constructs. Such cognitive mediators have included locus of control (Rotter, 1966), attributional style (Anderson, Horowitz, & French, 1983), individual sensemaking (Harris, 1994), social categorization (Moskowitz, 1993), chronically accessible constructs (Sorrentino & Short, 1986), and many others. This diverse body of research has convincingly indicated the pervasive power of schema and their network of assumptions and presumptions, from word choice in everyday speech (Edwards & Pearce, 1994) to parenting styles (Bugental , Brown, & Reiss, 1996).

There have been some neuropsychological findings which have to some extent gone beyond the limits encountered by Piaget, due to the development of new diagnostic and exploratory technology and methodology. These newer sorts of studies show “up-close” neuropsychological mechanisms which may well be implicated in the formation and maintenance of cognitive schemas. However, current understanding of the neurological substrate for intentionality, motivation, and consciousness suggest that such high-level cognitive processes are not seated in any singly area of the brain but instead seem to arise from complex feedback-loops based on neural pathways linking numerous neuropsychological functions. This kind of system allows a perceptually-driven field of consciousness, in which input from the sensorium is selectively attended by attentional resources, based on feedback originating in complex motivational systems. Such mechanisms may play a part in the formation of schemas based on patterned tendencies built into the brain. Several recent studies have implicated the cingulate gyrus in determining hierarchical relationships in cognitive processing, especially in the top-down organizational scheme which is evident in priming tasks (Aston-Jones at al, 1999). Such discoveries encourage the hypothesis that the mind functions largely categorically, with “nested” subroutines based on deeper and more fundamental systems.

Phelps et al (1998) examined the role of the amygdala in emotional memory, comparing a 54-year old female with bilateral amygdala damage to controls. Results indicated deficits in fear conditioning and recognition memory for arousing stimuli, but only when episodic memory is marked by an arousal state (not when the memory itself contained an emotional valence). The authors postulate that the amygdala may contribute to the formation of episodic memories through the organization of “an organizing principle such as a schema or category” (p. 536). This finding tends to lend credence to the formation of schemas around a nodal point of affectively charged experience, with the participation of the amygdala. Several models of schema development count on the input of emotional experience in the formation of enduring associative complexes (see Winter & Kuiper, 1997).