How We Form Mental Models And Why You Should Care

I often hear people refer to others as having a different ‘mental model’. Normally this is short hand to say, they see the world differently to me, but I always wondered why this happens?

I decided to investigate and quickly realised that to understand this I first needed to consider how the brain works. This was a daunting challenge but with the help of the fantastic book, On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, I began to learn enough to be dangerous! Here’s a summary of what I discovered and why it’s important.

Contrary to popular opinion the brain doesn’t “compute’ answers like a machine, it retrieves answers from our associative memory. Our brain uses these stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, hear and feel before or as it happens, with most of these predictions happening outside our awareness.

In essence, that means our view of the world today was actually formed though previous experiences that may have happened a long time ago. It also explains why we all have different mental models because we cannot all have had the same experiences.

Most of the time the way our brain works doesn’t impact our ability to understand each other. The world around us is fairly consistent and so we have built the same internal model of how it works. For example as a child you learned if you threw your toys, gravity would always pull them to the ground. Over the years we have all seen objects fall to the ground often enough and we have memories of these experiences that enable our brain to predict what will happen if we knock our coffee cup off the desk.

But what happens to our collective understanding with more nebulous concepts?

The fact is much of our world view is based on customs, culture and what we learned from those around us. These parts of our mental models are much less consistent and may be totally different for different people.

One of my favourite examples of this is how people from different cultures perceive space and objects differently. Studies have found that Asians attend more to the space between objects whereas Westerners attend more to the objects. This leads to surprising differences, like how in American cities the roads are named where as in Japanese cities the space between the roads are named.

In both my work and personal life I’ve encountered situations where two parties are saying the same thing, but have a different understanding of what each other really mean because their memories are different. It is what makes communication difficult and where the limitations of our ability to express our thoughts in words becomes most apparent.

If we are to gain collective understanding and build similar mental models I think we need to build shared experiences. Reading the same books, going on the same training or working together on the same projects help build similar memories to recall.

So before you dismiss someone for not seeing the world the same as you, consider how their past experiences may have influenced their view and how you can help them form new memories to get to collective understanding!