Narrative patterns of thinking

A schemata is a pattern of thinking that describes our seeking for meaning and how we categorize information and store it in small boxes that we call our memory, which forms our experiences and knowledge. What meanings we are creating from a narrative perspective is not easy to tell. However, what isn´t that unpredictable and arbitrary as we might think are the schemata that are running like a goal-oriented vehicle that makes us look for causes and consequences in familiar patterns.

As it is the schemata a narrative constructor uses when conveying information that surprises, creates curiosity, and puts people in suspense, it can be good to become acquainted with the schemata if one likes to know what triggers people´s core cognitive activities to seek meaning. From a narrative perspective on perceptual and cognitive processes, the template schemata are what makes us seek familiar structures in canonical story formats, conflict escalations, etc. When we try to identify persons, places, and actions the pattern of thinking is called prototype schemata, and where the procedural schemata represent our seeking for motivation in causality, space, and time. So when you hear people going what, where, when, how, who and why, then you know the schemata are running.

Recognizing narrative patterns of thinking

Since the schemata are running simultaneously with a speed of a lightning bolt in the creation of narrative patterns of thoughts that give meaning to behaviors and objects I intend to provide you with a sense of how to recognize the schemata from a narrative constructor´s perspective. As it is the schemata-driven patterns of thinking the narrative constructor holds back and brings forth as a valve for the emotions to follow if recognizing the schemata it also gets a lot easier to detect and track the reasons as to why people act and react in a certain way to the plotting of an experience.

Thus the recognition needs a little bit of practice, if you have already read some of the recent posts, where I have shared some essential elements and concepts, then you have got a sense of the schemata. If you have familiarised yourself with the thought-based method of Narrative bridging, where the perceptual-cognitive processing of schemata, assisted by the narrative, is intertwined with the stylistic schemata, that is the reason why the method can smoothly follow and assist the arrangement and control of behaviors and objects and detect inconsistencies (see “Part 2, “Don´t show, involve”). Another way to recognize the schemata is that they are all directed towards familiar behaviors and objects. This is the reason I introduced in an earlier text the minimum amount of information needed to involve someone´s core cognitive activities. By presenting an unfamiliar object with a familiar object, it can trigger our core cognitive activities to identify, explore, compare and from the inference-making take decisions and make choices (see “Part 3, Don’t show, involve” and “2 plus 2 but not 4”).

The challenge

What could be a challenge though is to teach the schemata. As the schemata need to be experienced by changing the perspective as to see through someone else´s eyes, to recite the schemata makes no sense. To show the schemata by analyzing a film or a game where you have the results to hand isn´t of much help either. This is due to that it doesn´t show the perceptual and cognitive top-down and bottom-up processing of elements that are involved when constructing something new. You can´t either stress or forcing people to change schemata (unless you are using methods that I´m not advocating here). Considering if you like to have others to explore their narrative patterns of thinking if people´s patterns of thoughts are solid in meaning as the template schemata that concerns the narrative to be identified as a canonical story format, the only thing to do is to basically wait for the day when the desire to seek new patterns occurs. As I´m not a shrink, neither am I in the convincing business as then I would have been a politician, I´m going to let you experience the schemata from a narrative constructor´s perspective by telling you a story when I was giving a workshop. Along with the story, I will give you some tips on how to exercise the ability to recognize the schemata that make us look for motivation in familiar structures, causality, time, space, persons, actions, etc., and how the schemata connect to our emotions.

How to find the narrative glasses

The tricky thing when you are giving workshops is that you have limited time. Due to the constraints of three days and where my goal was to make the participants change their perspective to see through a constructor´s eyes as to detect the schemata the challenge was how to make the participants rather instantly leave their familiar patterns of thinking (in a positive way). So in the introduction letter about the workshop where I informed about the time, place, what to bring, the contact information, I added at the end of the message the following words: You are most likely to get a response on your e-mails at 6 AM.

When the workshop started, I asked the participants if they had any questions about the information. No one had any questions. “Was there anything that caught your attention?”. Nothing had caught their attention. “Was there anyone that wondered why I could only reply to your e-mails at 6 AM?” Shyly they admitted that this seemingly non-important information had caught their attention. When I told them that the information was deliberately placed there as to catch their attention and when I asked what they had thought they shared their thoughts: Who was I? What life did I live? “Why 6 AM, and not 7 AM? Did I work in a bakery? Did I work a night shift? Did I have a timer that turned off the Internet? And so on. When realizing how the “6 AM” had triggered their schemata and how the “6 AM” was the unfamiliar element that caught their attention and made them create meanings the participants got the “narrative glasses” on.

How to exercise the narrative glasses

Why I call the changed perspective a pair of “narrative glasses” is that the act of a narrative constructor is not only to trigger people´s core cognitive activities to ask what, who, when, where, and why, but also to know what object to tuck in. To familiarise with the action to know when, where, what and how to place an unfamiliar object into the narrative patterns of thinking, the best way is to learn by exercising the recognition of one´s own cognitive vehicle when seeking familiar patterns.

As schemata are culturally entrenched, an exercise that you can try is to look at commercials from other countries that you aren´t familiar with as to study the seeking for motivation in familiar structures, causality, time, space, persons, behaviors, etc. When you watch and feel that it doesn´t make sense, then you are in contact with the schemata. Hold on to it and explore the “movements” in your thinking.

If you would like to get a sense of how our emotions get involved when things don´t make sense, then there is another exercise you can do. Watch a film or television series together with a child that hasn´t yet learned the canonical story format and the familiar structures of the exposition, complication, and outcome. The example I like to use is an old Swedish version of the television series “Pippi Longstocking” when Pippi comes riding on her horse in the opening scene and sings: “Here comes Pippi Longstocking, here comes Pippi Longstocking, here …”. The child might not be jumping on the couch with excitement but what can be noticed is definitely a positive reaction from seeing Pippi and hearing Pippi confirming the child´s anticipations and expectations. Then the opening scene cuts to a girl who´s presenting herself as Annika. No Pippi. Then the camera moves to a boy that says he is Annika´s brother Tommy. No Pippi. Then the mother appears, and she is introduced, then the father comes…and so on. No Pippi. For every “No Pippi,” you can notice how the anticipations to see Pippi drops step by step beyond the limit that emotionally counts for a positive experience. As what easily happens when things don´t make sense and reaches a negative level is that it can lead to an inference-making where someone expresses their dislikes and moves on to seek something else that makes sense in a meaningful way.

Back to the workshop

Before the workshop started (that was voluntary and no grading involved), I had been contacted by participants that couldn´t attend the first day but asked if they could turn up the next day. I said it was okay if they didn´t mind that they wouldn´t be able to follow the process that the others did. There were no problems, and they understood. I had no idea that the difference between those who had participated from the first day compared to those that came later would be so striking. I wouldn´t call it a conflict, but the contrasts were blatant.

As it´s hard to narrate all the exercises that were built up during the three days workshop, I will use the image that has frequently appeared in the last posts that features the character Walter White from the television series “Breaking bad” standing in a desolate desert in his underwear holding a gun. Why I´m using the image is to depict what cognitively triggered the latecomer’s schemata to start spinning in a negative direction. What the image of Walter White clearly points at is the perceptual and cognitive schemata and how the underwear is the unfamiliar object that triggers people´s core cognitive activities, in the same way as the “6 AM, that will make people ask: What happened? Who is he? Why is he standing in his underwear in a desert?“ etc.

Breaking Bad, AMC

Let´s pretend that we are the latecomers and that we are influenced by the canonical story format that, in opposition to the child, make us anticipate seeing an establishment of characters, places, conflicts, etc. and we hear the lecturer saying: “The underwear is the object that involves.”

What happened rather quickly with the latecomers´ sense-making was that they went into an inference-making, based on the template schemata of a canonical story format, and claimed that there were other elements superior to the underwear that were of importance to the involvement. There was nothing strange with the latecomers´ contrasting meanings and opinions and could have been sorted out. However, what caused a dilemma was the participants that got the “narrative glasses” on the day before, and I, as a lecturer became the target for the latecomer’s attention. This, in turn, caused that the latecomers´ questions were directed at us: Why did the lecturer point at the underwear as to be the object that involves? Why aren´t the others reacting to what the lecturer says? And so on. In this way the participants with the “narrative glasses” and I became the unfamiliar object that triggered the latecomer’s sense-making in the same way as the “6 AM”, and Walter White´s underwear did, but in a negative direction. The anticipations could be seen dropping quickly through all the exercises that didn´t confirm the expectations caused by the template schemata.

“Being Walter White´s underwear” could have been a fun film title. However, in a situation when you are teaching and where you know that you can´t change people´s pattern of thinking just like that and definitely not make jokes to ease up the situation, the time was too short to even up the contrasts in the understanding. When evaluating the workshop and the assessments, the interesting was that the group, which had participated from the first day, expressed a very positive experience but where the group that came in late expressed the opposite.

Why someone may like or dislike something

For some time ago I followed two players on YouTube until one of the players by principle stopped playing story-based games. In the same way as the latecomers, the player came to an inference-making that he didn´t like stories. Since the responsibility is on the constructor, as well as I had a responsibility as a lecturer to give the experience of the workshop a meaning, I shouldn´t have said yes to the latecomers without giving them a key as the “6 AM” as to give the workshop meaning. But as I wasn´t aware of the strength of the template schemata and therefore didn´t give the canonical story format any attention/meaning the same unawareness can be seen within the game industry where for example the story in some games haven´t be given any meaning and where the game can be played without having to read any lore, quests or listen to any NPCs (which I talked about in the previous text “2 plus 2 but not 4”).

If you would like to know why some people like something and some don´t, the best way to seek a reason is if one can strip off the creations of meanings (narratives) that are expressed (reviews included) and only look at how the schemata are running towards recognizing familiar patterns as in the example of the child watching Pippi or the latecomers. Notice the unfamiliar object that gives cause to consequences that can be experienced as negative or positive. If noticing how the anticipation is dropping off when a player is making choices from a dialogue tree in a story-based game, and it turns out to not make sense, a negative experience is likely to be heard. Besides the example with “Journey” that I showed in a recent post where the players expressed when testing the game a negative experience (see Part 3, Don´t show, involve”) another example of a game where the players´ voices could be heard was “Mass Effect 3”. If you pick a game that you know caused a negative reaction, or positive, and study the pattern of thinking if the reaction is negative try to follow by thinking regarding the unfamiliar in relation to the familiar what makes the anticipation drop or an inference-making to suddenly occur. I also recommend reading, “Part 3, Don´t show, involve” where I describe the difference between listening to someone´s meaning compare to someone´s reaction.

You can also check the opposite reaction that causes a positive experience from an unfamiliar object being presented in relation to the familiar schemata. Unless you aren´t already watching people playing games on YouTube, I recommend that you choose two players so that you can compare their respective reactions. You can also do as I did and pick two players with opposing meanings and then check for the patterns in the construction that they react on and see if and in what way they differ in schemata. When you do this, don´t forget to recall the feeling from watching commercials and the schemata that made you seek for familiar structures, causality, causes and effects, persons, places, behaviors, etc. What also counts when tracing the seeking for familiar patterns is to have the goal-oriented vehicle in mind that connects to our expectations. If a promise is made as in the example with Pippi who expressed by singing: “Here comes Pippi Longstocking”, check what happens if the promise is not kept. Same counts for games that are said to deliver an experience but may not do it, how can it be recognized? Check how the game has been announced, what promises have been made, and how they eventually relate to reactions.

When I compared the players that held two opposing meanings about stories, what I found was that they both reacted negatively to behaviors and objects that didn´t make sense. By looking at their seeking for meaning in familiar patterns, the player who didn´t like stories didn´t like to play first-person shooter games with a weak AI either. Let´s think about our need to see behaviors and objects making sense. If a game provides you with a weapon in a war zone, you see enemies coming in clusters, but you can´t tell from where and you can hardly see any effects from shooting on the enemies´ behavior, it gets apparent how the goal-oriented vehicle and the schemata connect to our expectations. In the same way, as the anticipation dropped for the child and the latecomers the same could be seen with the two players, no matter the genre.

If you may wonder about the difference in the inference-making were one of the players stopped playing story-based games, and the other continued, it gets a lot trickier as we will be looking into the individual meaning-making. But if being aware of the incentive behind our need to find meaning, it also shows the strength in our goal-oriented seeking for meaning. Even if we are not given any information/explanation, our creation of meaning will still take place via finding patterns and where we “fill the gaps.” The ability we use to refer to is our imagination, desires, and beliefs that make us all into narrative constructors. So if not seeing any meaning we simply create one based on our desires and beliefs and regarding the player’s choices we would have to ask what they desire. But it is those “gaps” that are the focus for the narrative constructor to cognitively give an edge (and where “the gaps” will be a topic for a later post).

Narrative bridging

Since Narrative bridging is built upon the schemata and the narrative principles that support the perceptual and cognitive processes one doesn´t need to learn the schemata if using Narrative bridging. As the perceptual and cognitive approach to the narrative helps us to detect on a more detailed level the behaviors and objects, it gets a lot easier if one, for example, likes to work with familiar structures of canonical story format in relation to the stylistic elements to see how the stylistic schemata call upon our attention to be used. This is just one example that happens when Narrative bridging is helping to detect inconsistencies that can make the anticipations drop beyond the limits that count for a positive experience of a meaningful experience.

As I have so far only scratched on the surface what Narrative bridging can do, I will take a step further and return later this year and show a more detailed hands-on depth to the systematic use of Narrative bridging. Since I would like to explain the bottom-up and top-down processes involved when constructing a game and where showing someone´s else’s work doesn´t give the full picture (and where I can´t share my own due to the client´s rights to the concepts) I will make a game from scratch. As a foretaste, the cognitive process will be arranging, structuring, and tailoring use cases, workflows, etc. depending on concepts, contexts, and needs, and how Narrative bridging can help to sort it out.

Meanwhile, I recommend familiarising with the narrative patterns of thinking as well as reading the other texts on the site as they belong to the same pattern of thoughts that for example makes Walter White´s underwear appear over and over again. If you, for example, read “2 plus 2 but not 4”, note how the example with the “glove drenched in anaconda blood” that a teacher used is the same kind of unfamiliar object that the “6 AM” and Walter White´s underwear. There are lots of connections that can be found in the other texts, which tells more about our schemata and how they aren´t that unpredictable and arbitrary as we may think. What may obscure our sight are the template schemata that we are creating for each context and system, as they were different.

If you have any questions, don´t hesitate to ask. You are most likely to get a response but not at 6 AM.

Take care and have a lovely summer!

Katarina Gyllenbäck


Recommended readings:

Part 1 Putting into play – A model explaining our causal cognition in design.
Part 2, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective I
Part 3, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective II
Part 4, Putting into play – How to trigger the narrative vehicle

Recommended readings about schemata:

If you would like to learn more about the theories behind the narrative as a perceptual and cognitive process and the schemata, I recommend reading David Bordwell, whose theories provide bridging between film and games.

Bordwell David (1985) Narration in the fiction film. Methuen.

Supplementary readings about control:

The theory of control within psychology has found that low control means a negative experience and where a high control generates a positive feeling. As there are no connections between science and those who work on a daily basis within entertainment with the narrative as a perceptual and cognitive process, the taxonomy is so far only applied to education.

Pekrun, R; Frenzel, A C.; Goetz, T; Perry, R P. Schutz, P A. (Ed); Pekrun, Reinhard (Ed), (2007). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions: An Integrative Approach to Emotions in Education. Educational psychology series., (pp. 13-36). San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press, xiv, 348 pp.

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