The Schematics of an Abstract World

As humans we are constantly engaging in particular and specific endeavors with behaviors equally ad hoc. Or so it would seem. Underlying our actions per moment and context are instantiations. That is, a specified behavior comes not from spontaneous realization of what to do but rather from a prescribed repertoire we have been developing since birth. The preconceived source of our behavior is mostly subconscious but can also be developed consciously. In either sense, these concepts are like schematics, or blueprints, which are developed, revised, and readily accessible depending on the context and stimulus that strikes us. In psychology, these phenomena are aptly termed “schemas” and can be understood in terms of memory, learning, and abstract reasoning; all part of a cognitive suite of survival tools we require to persist in hostile (or docile) environments. Of all the animals, humans seem to take schematic cognition very seriously, employing it constantly and variably, – and most distinctively – creating them abstractly.

A schema can be thought of analogously to an abstraction. Both of these are generalizations that can be applied in non-general situations. Their nature is to break down things into categories or types and find the fundamental items involved and the respective fundamental response for the respective effect. A simple example would be a flinch response. The schema or abstraction is, “Sudden movement detected, move sensitive body parts in a direction out of the movement’s perceived path.” and the instantiation (real-world application) could be, “A fly is heading toward my eye from a forwardly-left position, move the head and upper body to the right.” As you can see, the schema could be applied to not only a fly, but a rock, leaf, fist, hallucination, or whatever stimuli invokes the schema. So, the schema also is applied without explicit thought processes. Likewise, but also in constrast, schemas can be quite thoughtfully employed, such as when presented with a long division problem one may recall the schema they learned in school, think about how to fit the numbers into the prescribed method, then execute the behavior; or more complexly, a person could be given a project to complete at work and employ a schema that looks for the right schemas to use and then progressively use conscious and unconscious schemas over the course of the week to produce a final submission for the boss. Regardless of the particular level of sophistication, duration of retrieval and execution, and effect or product of any given schema, the fundamental principle is the same: abstraction.

Abstraction is a sort of generalization that filters out the irrelevant specifics and gives you the bare-bones structure of some event. When humans cognitively engage the world we are actively creating, modifying, and using schemas in the sense that we are abstracting ideals from reality. This is a powerful tool, albeit and gift and a curse in some ways. Our abstractions give us rules and predictions but takes away our innocence and mindfulness. I prefer my schematic approach to life, but it does make it hard to drop my abstract version of the world and see it for what it is unto itself in that moment.

Perhaps mindfulness is a sort of thoughtless, on-the-fly way of experiencing the world; a relaxing but hazardous way of looking at the world. We can only engage in this mindfulness behavior in limited amounts and in safe havens, for the world at large requires a schematic rigor to survive in for long. With this, I feel it is possible to make a meta-schema (a sort of schema for schemas), with intentional abstractions in mind, that allows us to be mindful and schematic-less for brief and appropriate moments so we can escape our abstract thinking.  There is benefit in both worlds (both the concrete and the abstract, the literal and ideal) but as humans we are bound to a world of abstractions and their schemas. We should be able to make this world cancel itself out once in a while by learning when and how to make our brains stop thinking with schemas for a fleeting moment. This surely must be the schema for performing mindfulness meditation…

It takes an abstraction to remove an abstraction, because once your in an abstract mindset all you’ll see is how your abstractions apply.


  1. Great points Tom. I do relate well to that last line, although a long break, 2-3 weeks can also have the same affect if outside influences are silent. It is possible to observe and reflect and change from our abstractions. You?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it definitely is possible but the purity is hard to maintain. Whenever a rain storm comes by or some birds stop peck the grass I try to use that natural simulation to go mentally quiet and observe, living in the moment. I find nature (rather than man-made, i.e. thought-made) things almost effortlessly can bring peace and mindfulness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mindfulness is a such a relaxing and rewarding state. When I was a child I pursued it a lot….without actually knowing what I was doing.
    As an adult it is a wonderful escape for me. Water really helps me. floating in a pool or the tub is really effective. Also while lying down. When my children were little I was into attachment parenting. During our “nap” times I was able to go into that state.

    Thank for sharing such a thoughtful post!


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