MENTAL MODELS: WHAT ARE THEY?
WHAT IS A MENTAL MODEL?
Mental models are how we see the world around us. They are the internal thought process that occurs in our mind before and while we function. Whether you realize it or not, there are mental models currently shaping your experience and guiding your emotions and behavior. Mental models never stop.
Whenever you perform a task, solve a problem, or face a challenge, a mental model is activated. "Without mental models, you would have to figure things out from the start each time you encountered a new situation or a new problem. Thus, having internal models of the external world helps us make predictions and inferences about how things work. It also helps us understand and explain phenomena and ultimately, decide what actions to perform (Johnson-Laird, 1983) (The E-Learning Coach)."
MENTAL MODELS ARE COMPLETELY UNIQUE
Your mental models are your unique "representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences (Wikipedia)."
Every single person has unique life experiences. While mental models can have common traits and consistencies between individuals, no 2 people perceive the world in the exact same way.
When you read a book, you internally create a narrative in your mind's eye. The appearance of the characters and setting in your own representation of the book will slightly vary from person to person, no matter how detailed the authors writing is.
This is a very clear example of mental models and how they're unique for every person. The story you create in your head is pieced together from your life experiences up to that moment (people you've met, interactions you've had, places you've been, etc.), and the information you're currently processing (the book you're reading).
WHAT DO MENTAL MODELS LOOK LIKE?
CHARACTERISTICS OF MENTAL MODELS
Since mental models occur completely within someone's mind, identifying and quantifying them can be tricky. You are the only one who can fully understand your mental model repertoire.
Just like the general characteristics of a mental model are based on past experiences, the way our subconscious delivers and displays them to our conscious mind is too.
Any situation in life can be broken down and represented by a composition of all the external sensory information occurring at that particular moment.
This external sensory composition is noted by the brain, and followed by our behavioral response to the situation. The positive or negative outcome of that response is then internally stored, along with the action performed and the sensory score of that situation. In the future, when a situation occurs with a similar sensory composition, our internal senses will guide our behavior towards a positive outcome. This is the basis of intuition.
LOOKING AT INTERNAL (OUTPUT) SENSES
In the previous section, I included a chart of the basic 5 senses. Traditionally, these are the only senses taken into account when observing a situation. However, all of these senses are completely external stimuli. They're inputs received by specially designed receptors in our body.
To better understand the forces that make up our mental models and guide our emotional responses and decision making, we need to take an internal perspective of sensory stimuli. Like mental models themselves, these senses are also a little harder to identify and quantify, because they are occurring inside your body and only perceivable by you.
These internal senses are a starting point to figuring out how our brain delivers subconscious information to our conscious mind; how we use mental models in our daily lives.
Internal mental models are made up of the following base traits:
Visual Imagery (Your mind's eye)
Text, Realistic Images, Infographics, Numbers
Audial Feedback (Your inner voice)
Your 'Gut Feeling' (There are more undiscovered variables still being researched)
How your subconscious actually presents these mental models to you is based on your learning style, which is shaped from past experiences. A visual learner possesses strengthened internal and external visual sensors. Because of this, their subconscious will lean towards delivering mental models in a more visual way. A strong audial learner will have a louder inner voice when using mental models to process new information.
In addition to these general characteristics of mental models, they are further individualized by your past experiences, skill sets, and existing mental models.
HOW CAN WE USE MENTAL MODELS IN DAILY LIFE?
USING MENTAL MODELS IN PHYSICAL FITNESS
I started practicing yoga a few years ago, using Yoga with Tim's 30 Day Challenge on Youtube.
I was always big into physical fitness. I played a lot of sports growing up, boxed competitively, and still run a few miles every day. I thought I knew what I was doing, but through Yoga, I was able to identify and fix some broken mental models that were holding me back significantly.
I've done each of the 30-day Yoga with Tim videos about 10 times each, first in sequence and since then in no particular order. On about the 4th time doing a particular video, I had a profound realization. The same words being said by Tim, the instructor, were now painting a different, more accurate picture in my mind. I think the intrinsic 'moving meditation' properties of yoga allowed me to better understand what was truly going on in my mind during practice.
Anyways, the little piece of instruction that really stuck with me and initiated my self-awareness and further study on mental models was quite simple.
"When you breathe, picture your lungs having 3 compartments - a top one, a middle one, and a bottom one. When you inhale, inflate the bottom compartment first, followed by the middle, followed by the top compartment. When you exhale, deflate the bottom compartment first, then the middle, and lastly the top compartment."
This piece of verbal instructional content finally clicked for me. By visualizing the 3 chambers I was able to finally breathe properly. My entire life up until this moment I was breathing incorrectly! This was such a powerful moment for me that I documented the exact mental model occurring in my mind at that moment, that allowed me to breathe properly and effortlessly.
From this point, I started really focusing on the specific mental models occurring in my mind that led to a performance increase.
I put the mental model animation I created on my smartwatch and went to the gym. Throughout my other workouts (running, boxing, lifting), I began to implement this deep breathing mental model and was truly amazed at how much my overall performance increased in almost every activity. By simply looking at this representation, that was completely unique to me, my breathing patterns would change and become proper with little to no thought. Over time, this pattern was reinforced enough times that deep-breathing became more natural to me.
I repeated the 30-day yoga challenge, this time focusing on specific mental models that would improve my performance. I printed out a sheet, grabbed a pen, and started the videos from day 1. I was able to nail down about 20 mental models that really helped me get the most out of the instruction.
I created digital renders of my drawings, trying to represent that was occurring in my mind as accurately as possible. I then overlayed these mental models over the video at the specific times they were being instructed.
I was able to come up with about 15 base mental models that were inhibiting my physical fitness levels. I sent these 15 to my smartwatch, where they could be easily accessed while I was performing my other physical activities.
Over the next few weeks, by implementing these simple, unique representations of more complex concepts into my workout routines, I started improving at an unparalleled rate.
I also realized that implementing these mental models into my workout routine worked as a cascading effect. I used characteristics from the most basic mental models to design more complex ones, which allowed me to more easily apply what I already knew to more advanced multi-part concepts.
Here is the sequence of mental models, derived from practicing yoga, that I used to improve my running form, pace, and endurance:
I think that the brain works in similar ways while understanding both physical and mental concepts. By studying how we learn and retain mental models that enhance physical fitness, we can understand how to more effectively teach mental concepts, like math, reading, etc.
USING MENTAL MODELS IN EDUCATION
Just like a student's mental models are influenced by their past experiences, existing knowledge, and sensory biases, so are a teacher's.
We focus a lot on catering lessons to a student's individual learning style, but we put less focus on identifying a teacher's teaching style. As much as we would like teachers to be unbiased and to convey information in a unified way that is easily understandable by all their students, this is impossible.
Rather, the goal of an effective teacher-student relationship is for the teacher to identify how their own experiences and teaching style affects their mental model of a certain subject. Then they should identify the students existing mental models and learning preferences, and work together to come to a common mental model that accurately represents the information but can be easily recalled and applied by the student.
When a student has a broken or incomplete base mental model, and more complex concepts that build off of these ones are introduced, the student experiences intense frustration. For example, in high school geometry, I missed the lesson that explained the unit circle. I was always a very strong math student, but for some reason could not grasp the concepts of SIN, COS, and TAN. No matter how hard I tried and how much effort I put in they just made no sense to me.
After studying mental models and the effects they have on learning, I realized that missing this base mental model of the unit circle seriously inhibited my ability to learn the concepts of SIN, COS, and TAN, that were directly built off of understanding this initial unit circle mental model.
To test my theory, about 10 years after taking this course in high school, I went back to see if I could better grasp this knowledge focusing on mental models. I took 2 days to really study and grasp the concept of unit circle, created my own mental model that was unique to how my brain processed the information, and then moved on to SIN, COS, and TAN. By truly understanding the unit circle mental model, I was able to effortlessly learn and apply these concepts that I struggled with so much in the past.
If we can begin to track and identify a student's base mental models, we can develop learning materials that are more suited to their life and more effective for them. By recognizing which mental models a student does not possess, or possesses a broken representation of, we can begin to focus teaching efforts on fixing these crucial concepts before moving on to more advanced subjects.
If you don't know how to breathe properly, running a marathon is going to be nearly impossible, no matter how often you run or how bad you want it. If you don't know what a unit circle is, applying SIN, COS, and TAN is going to be nearly impossible, no matter how many practice problems you do.
By focusing on and incorporating mental models into our daily lives and learning curriculum, we can drastically increase the effectiveness of learning and overall quality of our lives.
Here is a list of great resources if you'd like to learn more about mental models: