The mind has a map of its own

realizing my mind as a city based on the schema theory

A few years ago, I tried playing Cities. One of the most fascinating things about it is that the first things you have to build are roads, not buildings. The kind of roads built determine the surrounding zones, and in turn, the zones determine what kind of buildings should be allowed in the area. Like in real life, they direct the flow of traffic: who goes where, which parts are accessible to whom, and who can do what. The more convoluted and haphazard the roads are laid, the more disastrous a city is to maintain. Roads therefore are not viewed merely as connections from one place to another, but they make the city what it is: from a collection of random structures into one sprawling, breathing network of people and places.

Though I didn’t have enough brain cells to keep playing Cities–and around that time, my laptop didn’t either–that perspective stuck with me. It later influenced the other maps that I’ve been constructing and drawing, especially that of my cognitive space. And as this lockdown stretches longer and longer, I find myself retreating inward much more often in an effort to somehow expand the space I can move in within the 30 square meters I share with my mom.

What makes a space a place? Can my mind be considered a place–or even a collection of places–where I can retreat to? If my internal space were to be realized as a map, what kind(s) of city/cities do I have? In one of my earlier posts, I wrote about how places are made real by the kind of boundaries one draws around a collection of markers. A place is highly dependent on the meaning I put into it, and the more value I assign a place, the more real and defined it becomes.

It brings to mind the schema theory, which is about “how knowledge is represented and about how that representation facilitates the use of the knowledge in particular ways.” (Rumelhart 1980 as cited in Hermosa 2002) We learn by packaging separate pieces of information into units that are made more complex by how we organize them or how much we add to them. These units are connected to each other by links, and the more a link is used to get to somewhere in our brain, the more it is easier to remember that route or that unit.

Here are some principles for understanding our knowledge based on the schema theory (Hermosa 2002):

  1. Schemata (plural) have variables or categories. I picture this in my head as buildings, open spaces, or any kind of city structure.
  2. Schemata can embed, one within the other. Embedding creates subcategories, which I imagine as additional stories to my buildings or more extensions, more elaborate complexes, and so much more. The more I know about something, the more elaborate the structure is and the more space that zone occupies in my city.
  3. Schemata represent knowledge at all levels of abstraction. It can be concrete knowledge (e.g. food), abstract concepts (love), procedural (cooking), and so much more. I think of these as the different purposes of the structures I build. Some are highly functional and would probably constitute the city square or center of my thinking, while some are… merely decorative. Some–like my math know-how–are probably underground: underappreciated yet fundamental.
  4. Schemata represent knowledge, not just definitions. These include ways of doing a task or even what one considers “common sense”. I often tell other people that “what is common sense to you may not be to me”, and asking someone to talk me through their common sense reveals so many connections and ways of thinking that I have never encountered before.
  5. Schemata are active processes. They shift and change whenever I learn something new, connect previously unrelated units, or overhaul an entire section of my city. Growing my cognitive city involves assimilation–adding more values to existing units–and accommodation–changing an existing unit to fit new values. The more we experience and the more we deliberately try to learn, the more complex our buildings become.
No description available.
Example of changing schema: a 12-year-old’s schema for an animal is much more complicated because it has more subcategories and information (Hermosa 2002).

The city of my mind would have towering skyscrapers about books, especially now that I’ve started blogging extensively about them. It would be a vast and beautiful zone, with well-kept gardens and numerous flourishes. Sadly, it would have ramshackle huts about fixing my gadgets or about exercising. I’m trying. Please. Actually, while writing this paragraph, I realize that I’m not really sure what I don’t know and that bothers me so much.

But these structures only come together through the kinds of roads that lay in between. Some are busy thoroughfares, and some are nothing but dirt roads. Some are much more well-traveled, while some would need to be unearthed by an obscure fact. In addition, the routes I take to get from one zone to another can be… more efficient. I dread having to “draw” transportation maps for my cities, because I too can get lost in the convoluted mess that is my road system.

Like in the game Cities, I realized that the way I build roads is based on how I think zones should be connected in the first place. Do I want them all to lead into a central plaza? DO I want them wild and topsy-turvy? Do I want them laid out in neat grids like New York, or does the sight of it make me itch? Which units are directly connected to each other, and which ones would need too many detours in between Points A and B?

I think that many of these roads are based on two important things: my love for stories and my wandering heart. Because I see everything as a narrative, each route must have stops for characters, conflicts, settings. Even if that zone is dedicated to cut and dry facts, I would try my best to weave a road network that fits them into a storytelling form. In addition, my childhood as a diaspora Filipino undergirds my city in ways that I am still beginning to uncover and have yet to gain words to describe.

In the midst of midnight chats and long, rambling messages, I wonder how my city appears to people who have never been here before. Is it daunting? Is it organized? Is it open and friendly? How important is it for me to personally guide people through my own city, or is it okay to simply drop them into my ramble and not care whether or not they figure out where they are? Will they even ask me to help them in the first place, or will they use their own road-laying principles to navigate my space?

Mapping my cognitive city keeps me occupied these days from feeling trapped within the walls of our condo unit. It requires visiting parts I’ve long abandoned and checking if the existing labels of each zone still fit. It’s so uncomfortable to see it all laid out on a page while I write my thoughts or try to explain how I think, but I reckon that a comprehensive city review is needed every once in a while, usually with the much appreciated help of Ezra the urban planner. Love you.

To the others, well… welcome to my messy city. Inkhaven is an invitation to navigate some parts of it, and I hope that it is worth your stay.


Hermosa, N. E. (2000). Unit 1 Module 4: Reading as Comprehension. The Psychology of Reading. UP Open University. 

Rumelhart, D.E. (1980) Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In Spiro, RJ et al. (eds.) Theoretical issues in reading comprehension: perspectives from cognitive psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and education. N. Laurence Associates.


Let’s chat:

  • If your mind were a place, what would it look like? Would it also be a city like mine?
  • If you’ve talked to me or read my posts, what do you think of my mental city?

10 thoughts on “The mind has a map of its own”

  1. I love, love, love, LOVE this post! It’s got theory and the Cities game, two things I greatly enjoy. Your map sounds about right, but I’m curious to see it translated into visual form. 😀

    Also, have you read Neil Gaiman’s very short piece on cities and personalities? It’s this cool Easter egg in the 2000 version of Sim City.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading it! My spatial skills are super horrible, so I might have to ask someone else to draw it for me based on my chicken scrawl drawings 😂

      Yes I have!!! It’s part of his nonfic collection A View From the Cheap Seats, which I absolutely adore!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eleennae, you write so well! Everytime I start a post, I get sucked into your words.

    I’ve never heard of Cities, actually? But it totally sounds like something I’d love. And now I understand why my city is very messy—we started with buildings instead of roads.

    I think my map is too spaced apart that sometimes I forget about parts of my city. I don’t like clutter so I try to keep everything as separate as possible and with lesser links and cleaner lines. It’s a little too wide to handle and manage all at once. I need to definitely think forget about my map and what that says about me.


    1. Thank you so much for reading my rambles 🥺

      Your mind city sounds so different from mine, and I love how it shows in your work! Everything is so neatly categorized, while I keep coming up with labels but write posts that fit into none 😅

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s