Speaking of Mental Models

Plate Residing

“There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference, and it’s a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

There is a picture of a dog–a windable toy dog–and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says “What makes it move?” Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, “What makes it move?” Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, “What makes it move?” and so on.

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.

What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.

The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.”

―Richard Feynman
What is Science?

It’s very useful to talk about mental models, but if they are invoked as explanations in themselves, “nothing whatever is learned”. What are these mental representations? Are they how we think? What we think?

Here’s a big list of them: Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful. As I look down the list, I mostly see abstract constructs that most likely would never influence behavior in the moment.

How does one drive an abstract concept like “Sunk Losses” deeply enough into one’s psychology that the next time it comes to deciding whether to get off the highway to get gas, this heuristic actually comes into play? Somehow they most become habits, true mental models of how the world is perceived in the moment. They must be known, not applied.

A mental model can only become an unconscious mental habit with deliberate practice that develops an effective mental representation. That mental representation is, at the brain level, no longer a concept but a set of connections that lead to a perception that works better in the world, that improves performance. Mental models without consequence don’t concern us if the goal is deciding better.

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”
Gregory Bateson
*Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity*

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