Constellations and Schemas – Connecting the Dots

Have you looked at the night sky recently?


I have been exploring the topic of Archaeoastronomy – how peoples and civilizations have looked to the heavens, designing architecture and tools to understand their world.


When you look up at the night sky what do you see? You might notice how a clear, dark night reveals multitudes of stars, and you might imagine patterns in those stars, in the same way that you imagine images amongst the clouds during the day.


Constellations were one way in which people have imagined patterns, images in the night sky. These patterns literally and figuratively “connected the dots” – helping to make visual sense of the night sky, and also to make scientific predictions about the world. If a constellation was rising at a specific place in the night sky, it might be time to plant crops. If the constellation is at a different place in the sky, it might be time to prepare for a rainy season.


I find it interesting that most ancient civilizations had constellations, but the images were different from group to group. The constellations often reflected the religion of the society, and connected ideas about religion to the natural world. For example, the constellation DRACO was seen as serpent for the Greeks and Romans, and as a hippopotamus god for the Egyptians.


One fundamental concept in human cognition is the need and desire to project schema onto facts and observations. Schemas are mental structures that we use to organize knowledge to help guide our cognitive processes and behavior. Schemas can be both helpful and harmful. When we use schemas, we can better understand the world around us (like the movement of the earth) through a way of understanding observations (the positions of stars in the sky) to guide our behavior (when we will plant our crops). However, schemas have a dark side. They can lead us to stereotype by making assumptions and using cognitive biases. We have all seen the harm that stereotyped schemas have created in our society – racism being an important example.


So how do we connect the dots in our world without creating new problems?

  • Be aware of the schemas you are using to understand your world.

  • Stay open and curious to new and different schemas.

  • When you make an error of assumption, observe it, name it, and acknowledge it.

  • Talk to people outside of your typically schema to understand their schemas.

  • Read books/articles, or watch videos/movies outside of your typical “preferred” list.

  • Understand that it is normal for the human brain to create schemas – we all do it!

Dr Jennie Byrne © All Rights Reserved