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Schemas and their location(s) in the brain?

  1. Sep 14, 2016 #1
    I am trying to wrap my head around the concept of schemas overall. I am sure my picture is far from clear, especially since the schema concept seems to have its own meaning from psychology and I've been sifting through different definitions.

    My current understanding is that certain neural circuits in the brain are in charge of cross-binding, and relating different memories (built from sensory input) to each other.

    Structurally, I've seen a few different contenders for how schemas get formed:
    - cerebellum? (memory of motion and body control)
    - Ventromedial prefrontal cortex? (of course in combination with the hippocampus and the cortex). (Ghosh, Gilboa)
    - " Association Cortex"?
    - pre-limbic cortex? (Richard Morris)
    - Body schemas use balance organs (Gibbs)
    - Then there are visual schemas, movement schemas, auditory schemas.

    Could it also be that different types of schemas get produced in different parts of the brain?

    Finally, I have a more specific question, and I wonder if there is any information about this one out there:
    If an animal watches a bird flying, is the schema that is formed for the sensory input the same schema that makes the animal's neck move (essentially, the motor domain)? Another example would be, when a person watches an instructor do something: does the process of remembering the movement involve the same schema circuit in the brain (perhaps the visual schema?) as the process of executing the movement right after? (perhaps the motor schema?) (I imagine the pre-motor cortex has to play some part in all this too?)

    Any thoughts on this? I hope I am even going in the right direction with my thinking on this one.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2016 #2
    This statement makes little sense and is not well formed, so it's difficult to address this.

    This statement is a little better. There may be other definitions, but from my research a "schema" is associated with a motor program, not a sensory input. A scheme is a design, an operation, an organization, which implies movement. Say a cat sees a mouse moving around in it's vicinity. The sensory input triggers a schema in the motor cortices that might cause the cat to pounce on the mouse and manipulate it in some fashion that specifies the motor scheme. So the whole process constitutes a "sensori-motor" behavior. The sensory and the motor schemes are not identical, the sensory systems form one pattern representing the stimuli (say mouse), and the motor systems represent another pattern related to the execution of a movement (say pounces) associated with the sensory pattern of the mouse. The important distinction as far as your specific question, though, lies in the organization of the two patterns. The sensory pattern in the posterior or post-Rolandic region of the brain has a distinctive hierarchical representation that binds the various secondary and sensory association cortices. The frontal cortex, though, is distinguished from the posterior cortex in that it locks into a feedback loop through proprioceptive receptors coming from the musculoskeletal system. In mammals we identify this with the pyramidal or cortical-spinal tract. Now, it is a little messy because there's feedback everywhere up and down the line hemishperically between sensory and motor regions, but as a general subdivision, "schemas" are most usefully thought of as hierarchically organized, sequential motor behavioral routines whereas sensory representations are better thought of as, say, "templates" that trigger behavioral schemas rather than schemas themselves.
  4. Sep 16, 2016 #3
    Thanks so much for your response @DiracPool that is very helpful!

    It does help to think of schemas of mainly relating to motor programs. As much as sensory inputs are "patterns" themselves, you are saying that it would confuse to use the word "schema" to represent a sensory pattern.

    The question above that was confusing was meant to include the element of imitation. That is, what is the difference between a person observing someone do an action and doing the action itself? It does make sense to think of schemas from motor programs, because after all, for example, if we don't first learn a language and all its words and grammar (motor programs), we won't be able to make any sense of listening to someone speaking in that language. Right?

    Now, where is the distinction between having a motor schema running in the brain when we say a sentence in some language, versus when we are listening to someone say the exact expression, but we don't say it ourselves., even though we understand it. Both expressions "template" or "pattern" seem very similar to "schema" for the process of hearing and understanding that sentence. Or is the process of "understanding" in a way considered a motor pattern? After all, we are taking in a schema of behaviors into our sensory inputs. That's why I thought (more like, assumed) that it might be that when we listen to someone say a sentence that we are able to understand the schemas of that motor process because they start running in our brains too, but since we are not saying it ourselves, perhaps it is in the pre-motor domain or something similar, like another mirror-neuron domain, that is in charge of processing the sensory perception of a schema that is being sent our way?

    Hope that was a bit clearer. Quite a difficult and technical topic to make sense out of.

    p.s. I noticed you used the word "scheme" a few times, was that a typo, or is a "scheme" a specific distinction from "schema"?
  5. Sep 16, 2016 #4


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    This reminds me of mirror neurons. Single cells that fire when a behavior is done or when it is seen to be done.
  6. Sep 16, 2016 #5
    Yes, totally, this topic very much involves mirror neurons.
    I was listening to Gregory Hickok (author "The Myth of the Mirror Neurons") talk about this in an interview, and he made a compelling point, that mirror neurons have been observed to fire when observing someone do a specific task, but not necessarily that they cause the process., which was widely concluded.

    They for sure play some part in the process, and the whole topic got me thinking that sensory input has a "pattern"/"template" (or as I called it a schema), and then the motor output has its own schema, and mirror neurons seem to fire when a "familiar behavior" happens and was perhaps selected through evolution because it increased an organism's survival.

    So I got curious about where these different "schemas" for each sensory and for motor come from, and what they are in the brain.
  7. Sep 17, 2016 #6
    It's not a typo, I think these words can be used interchangeably. My roots are in the developmental psychological discipline of Piagetian theory who referred to the term "action schemes" as the generator of human intelligent thought, so I typically use the word "scheme" instead of schema in that regard.

    I was never a big fan of the "mirror neuron" hype nor the FOXP2 hype that was closely associated with it. The way imprinting and social learning are organized is not so simply localized to "mirror neurons" or certain genes.

    Yes, saying and listening activate the same cortical networks, although from different directions. Listening activates the network pathways caudo-rostrally and saying it does the opposite.

    I'd say yes, although it takes a bit of unpacking to explain why.

    You need to crawl before you walk. If you don't understand how cortical networks interact with each other, then talking about things such as the "pre-motor domain" or how the "ventro-medial" cortex is involved in such operations is just going to confound and confuse your progress in understanding how the brain works. It's better to start with a broad qualitative understanding of how sensori-motor processes are organized in the mammalian brain.
  8. Sep 17, 2016 #7
    I am really going to look into all the references and terminology you've given me @DiracPool. Thanks so much.
    This is a very new terrain for me and I am really hoping to make as much sense of it as possible and your input has really shed a lot of light!
    if there is a good resource that can give me a sort of 101 on this that you know of, I'd really love to check it out!
    Much appreciated again!
  9. Sep 17, 2016 #8
    From Piaget:



    These are two of my favorites:

    As far as the neurobiology, there's too many resources to mention. You've been following my posts, so you should have a number of references I've posted. A quick go-to giude though are these two:


    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  10. Sep 17, 2016 #9
    This is fantastic! Thanks so much, I need to sit under a rock somewhere and take some time with all this now! :)
  11. Sep 19, 2016 #10
    Hi @DiracPool
    I've looked a bunch into brain terminologies and processes.
    With all the reading, I was amazed to find the 3D brain representation on this website: http://www.g2conline.org/2022#

    I went back and read all your comments above and it all makes much more sense. For example, I do understand what you mean by saying that listening to someone talk, and talking basically have opposite activations.

    I also found two great video on cerebellum and the flow of information in the brain. Am I right to conclude that the cerebellum really does play the major role in creating procedural memory? And in that process, the creation of schemas, which keep track of the incoming sensory "templates/patterns", as you were saying, and thus perform different schemas depending on these sensory inputs?

    Is the memory actually "saved" in the cerebellum? Because these videos are not including the hippocampus, but then again, is hippocampus and the surrounding regions only involved in declarative learning? (I found a nice hippocampus video here: )

    Finally, in regards to the ability to imitate, is there good research and understanding of the actual way the process of imitation includes other brain parts and how they tie into the cerebellum diagrams that were shown in the two videos above? For example, which parts of the brain would be involved in tracking the "sensory templates" and "understanding" that the movement of someone's right hand that was just observed is connected to one's own right hand?

    I am sure I still have gaping holes in understanding all this, but I hope I am on a more right track with everything this time!
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