Alice De Schutter, blog post on mental models.

Broadening my set of mental models

Last month, my dad showed me an interesting article about mental models. Mental models can be seen as “the mind’s toolbox for making decisions”. The article highlights the benefits of having as many as possible. According to the author, this leads to clearer thinking.
As I read the article, I realised that one of the reasons I created this blog and enjoy learning about a wide variety of subjects is the fact that it gives me access to new mental models. This, as will be understood through the post, allows me to broaden my understanding of the world.

What are mental models?

A mental model is a concept that can be used to explain different things. For example, supply and demand is a mental model that allows you to understand economics. As you can probably guess, a large amount of models exists. Any one person understands a set of them. They are used as a toolbox for making decisions, solving problems and interpreting the world around us.

These models are useful but aren’t perfect. None of them can explain the immense complexity of any one system within the universe. Not even scientific models:
The motion of objects, for example, can be understood with the help of Classical mechanics. However, Classical mechanics doesn’t explain the motion of extremely small objects (about the size of an atom). A new mental model, known as quantum mechanics, is introduced for that purpose. Similarly, when the objects in question move at velocities close to the speed of light, General relativity becomes necessary (this is explained here).

Why are mental models important?

Understanding a wide variety of mental models is important because it allows you to create a truer picture of how the world works. The article explained this well: “when a certain worldview dominates your thinking, you’ll try to explain every problem you face through that worldview: ‘to the man with only a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail’.”

Here is an example:
Let’s attempt to explain something simple. Ask yourself: “why is Sara eating the waffle”? You might simply say: “because she was hungry”. But, how would a neuroscientist explain the same situation? He would probably respond that neurons in her brain fired and triggered the action. And, what about an evolutionary biologist? His explanation might differ. He would talk about natural selection and the fact that we are programed to eat for survival.
No one here is wrong. “All perspectives hold some truth. None of them contain the complete truth.”

In the future, I will try to make a list of mental models that I learn and add them to this post. Here are other people’s lists: list 1, list 2.

My list of mental models:


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  1. Pingback: Why Richard Feynman is an inspiration to me - What I learn

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