What Is Your Mental Model?

One time, I was trying to explain how my relationship with God happens. After I had finished, PG said that it sounded like it was “all in my head”.  I am very glad that PG said that because I had never thought about that idea before.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew he was right—my whole life is “all in my head.” I started looking for articles about how the mind works and discovered an area of science called “neuroscience.”

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system. It used to be considered biology but, today, it includes psychology, chemistry, medicine and philosophy.  Neuroscientists are trying to discover how our brains work to understand and react to the world around us.  They use tools like MRI’s to look into the brain to see what parts come alive when certain things happen to us.  What part of our brain gives us color vision? What part of the brain is used to make decisions?  What happens to our brain when we fall in love? How are our brains different when we are awake and when we are asleep?

Everything that we see, hear, say, feel, smell and taste happens in our brain.  Our eyes, ears, noses, tongues and fingers are all input/output devices.  It is our brain that makes the senses come alive for us. PG is right—everything is in our heads.

Mental Models

Neuroscientists use the term “mental model” to describe how we perceive the world around us and how we react to it.  Our mental model contains billions of “facts” gathered from our experiences, our education, even from our genes.  I use the word “facts” in quotes because a “fact” is something that we decide is true, even if we have not experienced it ourselves.  It is a fact that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun.  I have not personally travelled to the sun to measure this distance but I accept the scientific evidence as “true”.  For me, it is a fact that PG is a fine fellow.  That is how I see him and that is what I believe to be “true” about him.  Others may not agree with me on the topic of PG’s character.

“Our image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.”

Why are mental models so important? If I want to learn, I have to add to or change my mental model. If I want to communicate accurately, I have to be able to give the person I am talking to a copy of my mental model.  If I want to make you my friend, we have to “trade” mental models to decide where we agree and where we disagree and whether agreement is even important.

The mental model theory of thinking and reasoning

The mental model theory has been extensively tested and the experiments ... A
mental model represents one possibility, capturing what is common to all the ...

We use mental models to “fill in the blanks” when we communicate. If I tell you that I recently ordered a steak at a restaurant, you might assume that I was met at the door by a host or hostess, seated, and presented with a menu. You assume these details, and others, that I never actually mentioned because you have a mental model of how restaurants operate. But sometimes our mental model is wrong.  What if I go into Country Buffet and wait for someone to take my order. My mental model of how that restaurant operates doesn’t match the actual situation, and I might be confused or angry until I add buffets into my mental model of “restaurant.”

All mental models have a few important characteristics:

  • Mental models include what a person thinks is true, not necessarily what is actually true.  We never know everything there is to know about something.  Much of what we believe to be true is probably not.
  • Mental models are similar in structure to the thing or concept they represent.  Most of us can agree that dogs have four legs.
  • Mental models allow a person to predict the results of his actions.  This helps us make good decisions about our future.
  • Mental models are simpler than the thing or concept they represent. They include only enough information to allow accurate predictions.
  • Mental models grow and change as we experience more of life and learn from those experiences.

A mental model can be described as having several parts:

  • An image (needed if the mental model is of a physical thing)
  • A script (needed if the mental model has a process)
  • A set of related mental models (formal restaurant or a buffet)
  • A controlled vocabulary
  • A set of assumptions

It is important that we understand our mental models.  A bad mental model can create problems for ourselves and others.  When we want to change our lives, we must change our mental models.  The good news is that we can choose to change what we believe.


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