Mental models

I use the term “mental models” a lot, and so I figured – hey, maybe it’s time to do some semantic disambiguation and write down everything I learned so far about them?

When I say “mental model,” I don’t just mean a clean abstraction of “how a car works” or “our strategy” – even though these are indeed examples of mental models. Instead, I expand the definition, imagining something squishy and organic and rather hard to separate from our own selves. I tend to believe that our entire human experience exists as a massive interconnected network of mental models. As I mentioned before, my guess is that our brains are predictive devices. Without our awareness, they create and maintain that massive network of models. This network is then used to generate predictions about the environment around us. Some of these models indeed describe how cars work, but others also help me find my way in a dark room, solve a math problem, or prompt the name of emotion I am feeling in a given moment. Mental models are everything.

Our memories are manifestations of mental models. The difference between remembering self and experiencing self is in the process of incorporating our experiences into our mental models. What we remember is not our experiences. Instead, we recall the reference points of the environment in that vast network of models – and then we relive the moment within that network. Our memories are playing back a story with the setting and the cast of characters defined by our mental model.

This playback experience is not always like that black-and-white flashback moment in a movie. Sometimes it shows up as the annoying earworm song, or sweat on our palms in anticipation of a stressful moment, or just a sense of intuition. Mental models are diverse. They aren’t always visual or clothed in rational thought, or even conscious. They usually include sensory experiences, but most definitely, they contain feelings. Probably more accurately, feelings are how our mental models communicate. A “gut feeling” is a mental model at work. Feelings tell us whether the prediction produced by a mental model is positive (feels good) or negative (feel bad), so that’s the most important information to be encapsulated in the model. Sometimes these feelings are so nuanced and light that we don’t even recognize them as feelings – “I like this idea!” or “Hmm, this is weird, I am not sure I buy this” – and sometimes the feelings are touching-the-hot-plate visceral. Rational thinking is us learning how to spelunk the network of mental models to understand why we are feeling what we’re feeling.

One easy way to think of this network model as of a massive, parallel computer that is always running in the background, where we’re asleep or awake. There are always predictions being made and evaluated. Unlike computers, our models aren’t set structurally. As we grow up, our models evolve, not just by getting better, but also through the means by which models are created and organized. We can see this plainly by examining our memories. I may remember a painful experience from the past as a “terrible thing that happened to me” at first, and then, after living for a while, that “terrible thing” somehow transforms into “a profound learning moment.” How did that happen? The mental model didn’t sit still. The bits and pieces that comprised the context of the past experience have grown along with me, and shifted how I see my past experience.

We can also see that if my memory hasn’t changed over time, it’s probably worth examining. Large connected networks are notoriously prone to clustering. The seemingly kooky idea of the “whole self” is probably rooted in this notion that mental models are in need of gardening and deliberate examination. When I react to something in a seemingly childish way, it is not a stretch to consider: maybe the model I was relying on in that moment indeed remained unexamined since childhood? And if so, there’s probably a cluster within my network of mental models that still operates on the environment drawn by a three-year old’s crayon. This examination is a never-ending process. Our models are always inconsistent, sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot.

When I see a leader ungraciously lose their cool in a public setting, the thought that comes to mind is not whether their behavior is “right” or “wrong,” but rather that I’ve just been witness to a usually hidden, internal struggle of inconsistent mental models.

Our models never get simpler. I may discover a framing that opens up a new space in the previously constrained space, allowing me to find new perspectives. Others around us are at first simple placeholders in our models, eventually growing into complex models themselves, models that recurse, including complexity of how these others think of us and even perhaps how they might think we think of them (nested models!) Over time, the network of models grows ever-more complex and interconnected. At the same time, our models seamlessly change their dimensionality. Fallback fluidly influences the nuance of the model complexity, and thus – the predictions that come up. Fallback is a focusing function. If my body believes I am in crisis, it will rapidly flatten the model, turning a nuanced situation into a simple “just punch this guy in the face!” directive — often without me realizing what happened.

I am guessing that every organism has a kind of a mental model network within them. Even the simplest single-cell organisms contract when poked, which indicates that there’s a — very primitive, but still — a predictive model of environment somewhere on the inside. It is somewhat of a miracle to see that humans have learned to share mental models with such efficiency. For us, sharing the mental models is no longer limited to a few behaviors. We can speak, write, sing, and dance stories. Stories are our ways to connect with each other and share our models, extending already-complex networks way beyond the boundary of an individual mind. When we say “a story went viral,” we’re describing the awe-inspiring speed at which a mental model can be shared. Astoundingly, we have also learned to crystallize shareable mental models through this phenomenon we call technology. Because that’s what all of our numerous aids and tools and fancy gadgets are: the embodiments of our mental models.

This is what I mean when I say “mental models.” It may seem a bit useless to take such a broad view. After all, if I am just talking about leadership, engineering, or decision-making, it’s very tempting to stick to some narrower definition. Yet at the same time, it is usually the squishy bits of the model where the trickiest parts of making decisions, leading, or engineering reside. Ignoring them just feels like… well, an incomplete mental model.

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