Margie was tightly holding the string of her balloon. Suddenly, a gust of wind caught it and carried it into a tree. It hit a branch and burst. Margie cried and cried.
This sad little story by cognitive scientist David E. Rumelhart was quoted by Douglas R. Hofstadter in a passage from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Hofstadter was considering what it might mean for a computer program to be able to understand human language (“natural language”). He points out that there is much more to the story than there appears to be (p. 675):
To understand this story, one needs to read many things between the lines. For instance: Margie is a little girl. This is a toy balloon with a string for a child to hold. It may not be beautiful to an adult, but in a child’s eye, it is. She is outside. The “it” that the wind caught was the balloon…
And it’s not enough that a computer program has all this knowledge of the facts surrounding the story:
…even if it “understands” in some intellectual sense what has been said, it will never really understand, until it, too, has cried and cried.
How does this work, this understanding the we can do and computers can’t?
The way it works was explained back in the 1930’s by Cambridge psychology professor Frederic Bartlett, who used the earlier term ‘schema’ to denote the basic pattern-recognition mechanism in the mind. When we cry and cry for some reason as children, that remembered experience becomes a schema that can be reactivated in real, imagined and dreamed experiences later in life. It’s that reactivated schema that Hofstadter is referring to when he writes, “really understand.”
The term ‘schema’ was first used for this mechanism in the mind by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, writing in his Critique of Pure Reason way back in 1787.
Kant was trying to work out how the mind categorizes things. The example he gives is a plate, which is in the category of circular objects. The category of circular objects is a mental abstraction, while the plate is a real phenomenon. He writes:
Now it is quite clear that there must be some third thing, which
on the one side is homogeneous with the category, and with the
phenomenon on the other, and so makes the application of the former
to the latter possible. This mediating representation must be pure
(without any empirical content), and yet must on the one side be
intellectual, on the other sensuous. Such a representation is the
He could see that the mind must have some mechanism for organizing phenomena. This mechanism is purely mental, and it connects intellectual thought with the experience of the senses.
Bartlett disliked the term ‘schema’, and adopted it reluctantly. In his 1932 book Remembering he writes:
Yet it is certainly very difficult to think of any better single descriptive word to cover the facts involved. It would probably be best to speak of ‘active, developing patterns’; but the word ‘pattern’, too, being now very widely and variously employed, has its own difficulties; and it, like ‘schema’, suggests a greater articulation of detail than is normally found. I think probably the term ‘organised setting’ approximates most closely and clearly to the notion required. I shall, however, continue to use the term ‘schema’ when it seems best to do so, but I will attempt to define its application more narrowly.
By the time Aaron T. Beck came to write about CBT, the term schema had long been so widely understood that he was able to use it without any explanation or reference. It had become accepted as part of the basic language of cognitive psychology. For example, in his Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (p. 264):
The characteristics of depression can be viewed as expressions of an underlying shift in the depressed patient’s cognitive organization. Because of the dominance of certain cognitive schemas, he tends to regard himself, his experiences, and his future in a negative way.
Notice how close Beck’s phrase “cognitive organization” is to Bartlett’s “organised setting” of half a century before.
So that’s why a sad story can be so very sad. It evokes our own remembered sadness in each of us who reads it, and it does that through the mechanism of schemas.
But enough of that sad story for now. Let’s cheer ourselves up with a funny video:
The comedian is Steven C. Hayes, Foundation Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He made the video for a conference of the Beteendeterapeutiska Föreningens (Behaviour Therapy Association) in Sweden.
There is a reference near the end to Professor Lars-Göran Öst, who has helped to refine the research methods used to evaluate Hayes’ brainchild, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is based on another of Hayes’ brainchildren, relational frame theory (RFT).
To explain RFT, Hayes has written a helpful article, What is RFT? in which he summarizes it like this:
RFT treats relational responding as a generalized operant, and thus appeals to a history of multiple-exemplar training. Specific types of relational responding, termed relational frames, are defined in terms of the three properties of mutual and combinatorial entailment, and the transformation of functions. Relational frames are arbitrarily applicable, but are typically not necessarily arbitrarily applied in the natural language context.
Good stuff, isn’t it! I knew you’d enjoy it. You’ll probably want to click the link and read the whole article as soon as you possibly can. Before you do, however, here’s a spoiler.
A relational frame turns out to be a mechanism in the mind for organizing and linking experience and memory. That is, it’s the thing that Kant discovered in 1787 and named a schema. All Hayes has done is re-jargonize the concept in an opaque and bewildering way.
This is very bad news for Hayes’ brand of psychotherapy, ACT. In my next post I’ll explain why, with the help of another funny video.