Quite an enthusiastic response on twitter to this loaded question of mine. I envisage there will be many more here and when I share this on the social medias.
Lots of responses seemed to at least partially interpret ‘the problem with mental models’ in ways I had not intended:
- assuming the mental model framing and talking about how mental models can be good or bad or limited or improved
- informing me about the limits of mental models
- talking about the process by which people understand and retain or develop spatial models
- talking about the neuroscience of how the brain works in some way
- assuming there is no real alternative to mental models (so I must be talking about
- saying something clever about my mental model 🙂
- arguing for or against dualism or solipsism
- arguing about why metaphors are necessary (this is sort of relevant to my point)
My view is that the ‘mental models’ phrase, while well-intentioned and calling attention to various useful aspects of the ways people make sense, act, interact, and account for all of these things, is fundamentally misconceived and has been the basis for quite significant and misguided assumptions and activity based on falling over the inherent mistakes in the concept itself.
I won’t attempt to make my full argument here, since I am not confident I understand it yet, but/and a few preliminary points would be:
- there are no actual models in heads
- there is nothing like a model in heads
- human understanding and perspectives work very differently from ‘having models’
- the reification of this idea of ‘mental models’ deeply misleads
And that the name ‘mental model’ makes it seem that these are:
- rational and changeable through rationality
- in some sense a model
- comparable/additive to others
- capable of objectivisation
- personal and owned and contained
And gives rise to the ‘whole elephant’ fallacy (as if just ‘bringing together mental models’ – or doing simplistic mapping of what people tell you is their understanding of a ‘system’ – can let everyone share the same ‘God’s eye view’).
Going back to the beginning, there’s something(s) which the ‘mental model’ concept is pointing at – individuals’ and groups ways of making sense, deciding, acting, interacting, being, and accounting for/expressing all of these things in a particular context. Yet each of these (making sense, deciding, etc) may operate in a different way – and the way people account for these or explain or narrate them may be different again. ‘Mental models’ can be a relevant simplification or Lie-to-Children in some settings, but we might be better off without one laden metaphor for this complexity and diversity, which then gets reified and leads to all kinds of misunderstandings.
Ivo Velitchkov (@kvistgaard on twitter) kindly gave both a clear definition of some of these problems:
- That the cognition (incl. whatever happens in the brain) doesn’t work by processing representations of any kind, symbolic or other. When we ride a bike we don’t have (and don’t need) a model of the bike in our heads.
And a powerful reading list:
(they should be read in this order as each one refines and develops the arguments)
- The Embodied Mind https://buff.ly/2VlvPas
- Enaction https://buff.ly/2XIR2wG
- Mind in Life https://buff.ly/2KjJacW
- Linguistic Bodies
(BTW, one of the responses led me to https://www.modeltheory.org/, ‘The Mental Models Global Laboratory’, which to its credit has a list of critics – http://www.modeltheory.org/about/critics/#1547415412958-f2bc048e-b38c – but which seems to me to be very much about the things I see as problematic! – https://www.modeltheory.org/about/what-are-mental-models/#1567055674764-d814d78e-5cd5)