In order to theorize how the mind works, I am of the belief that you actually have to explain how individuals learn. In order to learn, every individual must actively participate in his or her own learning by connecting information he or she receives from a particular experience and, in turn, reflecting on it. In doing so, each individual builds meaning or constructs understanding of a certain concept. Individuals then turn to those concepts when they encounter new experiences. They may use the concepts to help give meaning to the new experiences or use the new experiences to redefine the concepts. If the new experiences conflict too much with the meaning or understanding of the concepts, they may also simply dismiss the new experiences out of hand.
Put another way, individuals interact with the physical environment through their own experiences. Through these interactions, they construct schema to help them understand the world around them. Over time, they continue to build more and often larger schema and make connections between them. They then interact with each other, sharing their individual schema. As a result, one of three outcomes is possible. First, an individual fully accepts the schema of another individual and replaces his or her own with it. Second, an individual partially accepts the schema of another individual and modifies his or her own with it. Third, an individual rejects the schema of another individual and retains his or her own.
To clarify, the process associated with replacing, modifying, or retaining schema is not a binary one. Explained, an individual does not simply intake something novel and instantaneously output a decision to fully accept, partially accept, or reject it. Such a process lacks the iterative nature associated with the process of learning. True learning occurs in the space between input and output. When exposed to something for the first time, the mind performs any number of activities with respect to the new thing in order to make sense of it. These activities may include, but are not limited to, clarifying and questioning what an individual just saw. Once the individual is satisfied or all possible activities have been exhausted, the mind renders a decision on the novel concept. It is important to note that this decision is not a “snap” judgment. While the process may occur very quickly, it is still robust and mentally laborious.
Taking into consideration all of the above, the mind processes information by utilizing schema. In other words, schema are used in both the encoding of information into long-term memory and the retrieval of information from long-term memory. To encode new pieces of information into long-term memory, individuals first connect those pieces of information to form schema. They then make connections between those schema and schema already encoded into long-term memory. To retrieve information from long-term memory, individuals rely again on schema. Since schema serve as mental representations and associations of information, individuals take advantage of them as memory cues to aid them in recalling past knowledge.