Have you ever heard the anecdote about the botanist, the geologist and the artist who go for a walk together down a picturesque country road.
The three men walk down the same road, on the same day, and at the same time, yet each of them saw different things.
The botanist saw the many different types of plants which grew along the edge of the road. The geologist saw the various rock formations. The artist saw the interplay between the sunlight and shade brought out the different colors of the flowers and ferns.
Although the three men noticed completely different things, and paid little regard to the things that were of no interest to them. The botanist didn't notice the amazing rock formations and artist wouldn't have been able to name a single plant along the roadside even though he could tell you all the different colors and hues he saw. Likewise with the geologist who paid little attention to the the plants or the colors that were both abundant along the route. And the botanist could tell you the name of every flower, but he barely noticed the rocks or how the colors of the flowers differed so dramatically.
The knowledge that we built up from past experience has become known as schemata. This word has hugely important connotations when it comes to interpreting and processing (or reprocessing) things that happen to us in life.
The term was first coined by Jean Piget, a psychologist, in 1923, but it was popularised a decade later by Sir Frederic Bartlett, a Cambridge professor. He did extensive studies on how people interpret information, the accuracy of that interpretation, and their subsequent recall.
In Remembering, which was published in 1932, Bartlett describes some of his ingenious experiments in which he showed people a variety of complex pictures or stories. He then analysed how they interpreted and later recalled these pictures and stories. The results were mindblowing. It was clear that people rarely, if ever, saw things how they really were.
In the process of assimilating the complex pictures they were shown, or the stories they read or heard, Bartlett discovered that their prior experience, or schemata, had a huge impact.
IML Hunter described this as follows in his book Memory: Facts and Fallacies
”We relate the unfamiliar to the familiar, assimilate it to our schemata, infuse it with personal meaning. And for the most part, this effort after meaning is not deliberate but immediate and accomplished without our being aware of it"
And this is where things get really interesting.
How writing to heal can help us better assimilate events
The work done by Bartlett almost a century ago, clearly demonstrates that new knowledge (such as the complex pictures or stories) are processed and then added to our existing knowledge, but how they are processed and what is added to our existing knowledge is dependent on our existing knowledge.
This means that what gets added (or assimilated) to our knowledge is based on both the new incoming information and the existing knowledge, which means that everyone assimilates things differently, as none of us have had exactly the same life experiences, education, etc.
If this process happened consciously we might have a chance to try to assimilate things accurately, which would mean what was assimilated was true and worthy of addition to our existing knowledge base. Unfortunately, as IML Hunter points out, this is 'accomplished without our being aware of it'.
That's where expressive writing and journaling can be of huge help. The process of writing about an experience helps us to process it in a more thoughtful way. Rather than the thoughts just bounce around our mind in a disorganised fashion, the writing process allows us to slow down and make some sense of it.
Expressive writing can help you to process events differently
Often the process of writing will allow us to reprocess an event in a way that makes more sense. It allows us to take stock and to practice writing to heal issues, events and trauma, rather than ruminating continuously and never quite making sense of what has happened.
It doesn't matter what kind of writing you do. It could be journal therapy, reflective writing, creative writing, or any other kind of wellness writing or writing therapy.
Next time something happens in your life consider taking the time to write about it. It doesn't have to be ten pages of your deepest thoughts. It can be just a single journal entry or a letter to yourself. The simple act of putting pen to paper, or your fingers to the keyboard, can help you to assimilate what happens in a more thoughtful and considered way and prevent you from seeing things only through a blinkered viewpoint like the botanist, the geologist and the artist.