Critical Thinking and Learning Site

About Learning and Mental Models


There is so much knowledge out there that sometimes you think you are going to go crazy.  The important question here is: do we actually acquire knowledge?

A lot of people surf the web all day long, reading articles, memos, opinions etc. The issue here is that it proves very difficult for the mind to process all this information.

Reading to Understand

When we read something, we tend to believe that we understood it, that we know what it means, that if we are asked about it a month later, we’ll remember the tiniest detail about it. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Someone must put a lot of effort in order to really learn something, in order to assimilate knowledge. When you watch a documentary about, let’s say, the creation of the universe, at that time you believe that you know everything there is to know about the subject. But try explaining what you have “learned” to someone else a few days later. You will probably find yourself unable to recall what you thought you had a total grasp of, much less relate it to a third party. All in all, if you can’t explain a subject to someone else, that means you didn’t understand it yourself in the first place.

There is a huge difference between reading in order to learn and understand and reading in order to acquire information. The latter is very easy, you can do it anytime, but the former takes a lot of effort.

In order to acquire knowledge through reading, the are some actions you must take.

The first thing is to develop a more active method of learning.
Simply taking a course or reading a book is not enough. One of the reasons I created this site is to help myself in that process. I intend to make my learning methods more efficient, and one of them is writing about them. So when I read a book, I want to make a summary of what I’ve learned from that book; when I take an online course, the same. When one puts some serious effort in studying something, that is when one understands it. In order to achieve that, you need the more effective process: discuss about what you read, show it to someone else, read it again, try to write something about it.

The second main issue is that knowledge is vast and time very limited. If you are interested in lots of things and areas, how are you supposed to acquire all that knowledge? This matter bothered me for quite some time.

Mental Models

After considerable research, the solution I found was something called Mental Models. You can’t master everything in every field. But what if you could master the most important things in most major domains (physics, economics, psychology etc), so that when you come across something interesting you can understand how it works, map it to the appropriate field and then study it even further?

In our mind, mental models are like simulations of how things work. Our brain always seeks for patterns to evaluate and process; mental models are the one critical part in this process. The more mental models your mind possesses, the more supple it becomes when analyzing a subject. On the contrary, a limited number of mental models forces your brain to adjust any information or knowledge it may receive to those models available. Simply put, your mind works with what it’s got. For example, let’s assume you have an accountant’s degree but you’ve always dreamed about opening your own shoe store. You might know a lot about a particular part of economics, but you completely ignore how psychology affects the consumer. Therefore, you tend to find solutions based on what you already know. But if you had some knowledge of psychology and its effects on the market, you could have taken a different route, with more profitable results.

Mental Models According to Charlie Munger

(from farnamstreet blog)

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.
What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.
And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. […] So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.
You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight. “

Using mental models you do not have to master everything. It’s like in business, where 20% of the product sales are generating 80% of the turnover. Imagine mental models as a small fracture of knowledge that covers the big part and has the potential to unlock other, harder to acquire, parts of knowledge.

The principal assumptions of Mental Model Theory

There is a nice summary of the principal assumptions of the Mental Model Theory  in

1. Each model represents a possibility. Its structure corresponds to the structure of the world, but it has symbols for negation, probability, believability, and so on. Models that are kinematic or dynamic unfold in time to represent sequences of events.

2. Models are iconic insofar as possible, that is, their parts and relations correspond to those of the situations that they represent. They underlie visual images, but they also represent abstractions, and so they can represent the extensions of all sorts of relations. They can also be supplemented by symbolic elements to represent, for example, negation.

3. Models explain deduction, induction, and explanation. In a valid deduction, the conclusion holds for all models of the premises. In an induction, knowledge eliminates models of possibilities, and so the conclusion goes beyond the information given. In an abduction, knowledge introduces new concepts in order to yield an explanation.

4. The theory gives a ‘dual process’ account of reasoning. System 1 constructs initial models of premises and is restricted in computational power, i.e., it cannot carry out recursive inferences. System 2 can follow up the consequences of consequences recursively, and therefore search for counterexamples, where a counterexample is a model of the premises in which the conclusion does not hold.

5. The greater the number of alternative models needed, the harder it is: we take longer and are more likely to err, especially by overlooking a possibility. In the simulation of a sequence of events, the later in the sequence that a critical event occurs, the longer it will take us to make the inference about it.

6. The principle of truth: mental models represent only what is true, and accordingly they predict the occurrence of systematic and compelling fallacies if inferences depend on what is false. An analogous principle applies to the representation of what is possible rather than impossible, to what is permissible rather than impermissible, and to other similar contrasts.

7. The meanings of terms such as ‘if’ can be modulated by content and knowledge. For example, our geographical knowledge modulates the disjunction: Jay is in Stockholm or he is in Sweden. Unlike most disjunctions, this one yields a definite conclusion: Jay is in Sweden.

As the site goes on, I will be presenting a list of several mental models. This list will not be exhaustive. The editing of the list will be an ongoing process and there might be changes.

The first part of mental models I am going to present comes from psychology and decision making. For some of them, I intend to run some social experiments, with the cooperation of the “Open Minds” think tank, through the its “Critical Thinking” pillar.

So, next week, we start the main dish of DoItLikePLato. We take a deep dive in biases, we review our first mental models, and we present the results of the first experiment.

About the author

By Plato
Critical Thinking and Learning Site

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