Mental Mapping: From Cognitive Schema to Reality and Back

In the fields of science, medicine, technology, business and law, among others, our perceptions constitute a world of possibilities.  Those perceptions we have signify meanings to be deciphered.  In the pursuit of knowledge, those who seek questions to solve problems learn how to both apply cognitive schemas to reality and conversely reflect back habits of perception onto such mental models of their respective fields of knowledge. 


The experience of art lends an useful comparison.  The great art historian Ernst Gombrich, born in Vienna and knighted by the British, explains in his Art and Illusion the interesting concept of “making and matching.”  Which comes first?  The artist knows they begin with an idea.  Borrowing the ideas of Neo-Platonism, Michelangelo claimed he began with the perfection of l’idea in his mind.  The process of creation was a struggle to embody this absolute essence with truth to reality.  He never found to his satisfaction a reconciliation of the idea of beauty he had in his mind with reality.  Note the distortions of body proportions and age in his Pietà for expressive purposes.

Michelangelo Pieta.jpg

If we take the example of knowledge specialist, they rely upon formulae but also realize the necessity of exercising the best of their judgment to empirical fact.  That latter factor is the indeterminate, which must be evaluated by various operations of objective problem solving.  In the face of the invariable conditions of a given situation, they must reconcile such unknowns with their cognitive schemas or revise them.  Arguably, while artists draw upon reality, they continually go back to an expressive idea as the first principle.  


Unlike the knowledge specialist, the ideas of an artist are inconsequential to life.  Artists can dwell in ideals.  Gombrich reminds us Plato objected to the increasing trend of realism in ancient Greek art.  He found the appearances of things would always be misleading.  This is the world of illusions where the eye is only deceived and our perceptions at best caught in a world of mirrors.  Plato feared the world of the senses. 


Without exaggeration the same may be said of knowledge specialists even while reality is the object of speculation to master.  But what are these illusions that are the culprit of our false perceptions?  Possibly Plato meant the limitations of the human mind bring us the farthest distance from the object of our perceptions.  Those pitfalls of knowledge construction are the way our expectations and biases interfere with the objective construction of knowledge.  We are constantly on the pursuit to match the data of experiential intake with those mental structures we are naturally inclined to form to create what Gombrich called his book, The Sense of Order.


Interestingly enough, the best lessons of circumventing the failures of sensory intake, absorption, analysis and interpretation may be learned from our earliest ancestors homo sapiens sapiens, the masters of the renowned cave paintings in Spain and France.  In their experience of the wild they depicted on the walls of the caves, they apprehended them firstly through fear.  This emotion lent the animals a force of strength both fierce and awesome.


Prehistoric humans’ awesome regard of creatures they depended upon and to which they also felt inferior invested their interest in the vicissitudes of sense experience.  Their pursuit of mastery stems from rigorous analysis of every detail of the anatomy of wildlife, how their bodies looked in motion, and migration and mating cycles.  Early humans saw the animals they worshipped flicker and move magically across the walls by candlelight like ephemera.  Their world was unstable.  Strangely enough, our experience of the world is no different today. 


By their wits alone, homo sapiens sapiens circumvented the natural pitfalls of the mind and relied upon the objectifying functions of sense perception to master their subjective reality. They opened up potentialities of experience by exercising a thoroughgoing and meticulous analysis of empirical data as if every piece of sensory experience were a question to be deciphered.  Seemingly inferior to us, the genius of our ancestors actually demonstrates modern human intelligence’s ability to cross-validate what beliefs we hold to be true by experiential and tacit awareness. Even if we are not dealing with tangible things we see, we can better problem solve by learning different ways of looking. We can learn how to outsmart the fear they had not so unlike our own.