Thinking is developing mental models

Remember - the enemy's gate is down

Reality is reduced into mental models

Reality is truth.

A mental model is our internal conceptualization of reality. Our brains are little scientists - they develop theories of how the world works, test them, improve on them, and use them to make decisions in life. We have mental models for everything - from how a combustion engine works to how a good pen should feel on quality paper. They are the frameworks through which we see the world. They are the shadows on our cave wall.

A mental model is a reduction of reality that exists to help us navigate life. Our brain is a latticework of mental models. They relate and intertwine.

In this post, we’ll explore the concept of mental models - what they are, why we need them, how they change and how to change them intentionally.

Mental models develop and grow all the time

Every experience we have in life affects our mental model. Our mental models update regularly, in subtle ways and usually involuntarily. You go to history class as a kid, you learn about history (maybe), but you also update the social relationship of people in class, of the language of your teacher, of how the education system works.

About 12 years ago, when I moved in with my then-girlfriend (now wife), I was shocked that she turned off her desktop computer when she was done working on it. I asked her why she did it and she was similarly shocked I didn’t turn my desktop off, like, ever. When I was a kid, my dad told me that booting a desktop up took more electricity than turning it off, so we usually didn’t turn off computers in our house. This isn’t really true anymore with modern computers, but in my mind, computers are special things that are always on. In my wife’s mind, computers are another appliance, like a blender. You’d turn off a blender after you’re done, so why not a computer? 1

Let’s consider an example and compare how a mental model evolves over time, or for different people. What’s the mental model of gravity in the eyes of a…

Focus and blind spots

Mental models are like field-of-vision: at the center where we focus our attention, everything is clear, sharp and detailed. As you go further away, things get murkier, fuzzier and ambiguous. We have blind spots where we think we see something real, but it’s just an illusion.

Quick, how does a bicycle look like? Yes, it has two wheels, a handlebar and a saddle, but how exactly does it look like?

Turns out most people can’t draw a bike correctly to save their lives, and you probably can’t either:

Gianluca Gimini, Velocipedia

Back in 2009 I began pestering friends and random strangers. I would walk up to them with a pen and a sheet of paper asking that they immediately draw me a men’s bicycle, by heart. Soon I found out that when confronted with this odd request most people have a very hard time remembering exactly how a bike is made. Some did get close, some actually nailed it perfectly, but most ended up drawing something that was pretty far off from a regular men’s bicycle.

Little I knew this is actually a test that psychologists use to demonstrate how our brain sometimes tricks us into thinking we know something even though we don’t.

Mental models shape our lives in subtle ways

Everything we do is based on mental models, though sometimes they are subconscious. It’s these subconscious mental models that I find interesting. Things we think about, but don’t think about thinking about them. A lot of our day-to-day actions, mannerisms and quirks are based off of hidden mental models.

Let’s take a look at a real-world example.

Example: learning how creatine works helped me take it more consistently

Creatine is a supplement that improves strength and is very popular among bodybuilders. If you search YouTube for “creatine” you’ll get dozens of videos explaining how to take it2: you take about 5g a day, and over about 30 days the creatine levels in your muscles reach saturation - that is, there’s no benefit to consuming more than the prescribed 5g daily dose. This phase, working up to saturation, is sometimes called a “loading” phase. It can be shortened by taking a larger daily amount (~20g) for a few days to get to the saturation point earlier.

I started taking creatine a few years ago. As is expected, I was very diligent about taking it every single day… for about a month or two. After that I started missing some days and eventually I stopped altogether. I had 2-3 more attempts that also failed. If I asked you for advice on how to be more consistent, what advice would you give me?

If you read this far, you might have a passing interest in personal productivity. You might suggest I set up reminders, use habits to “stack” taking creatine to another well-solidified habit or perhaps reduce friction by putting the creatine container right there on the kitchen counter.

That would actually be great advice! But I did many of these things and still failed to take creatine consistently. What eventually helped me was indeed to reduce friction, but it was mental friction, not physical.

At some point I noticed that as soon as I missed a few consecutive days of taking creatine, I would give up on it entirely. My mental model of how creatine worked was that as soon as I missed a few days, I need to load up again, and that I was missing out on the benefits of creatine entirely. When I noticed this, I realized that I had no freaking idea if that’s true or not. I had a pretty accurate model of loading and saturation, because all the videos I watched explained how they work in detail, but none of them explained what happens when you miss a day of creatine. Once I noticed my mental model, I could just, you know, check if it’s true. So I looked up “creatine” in Google Scholar to see if there’s a study on this. There was.

It turns out, muscle creatine levels decline slowly over about a month when you stop taking supplemental creatine. In other words, you load and de-load at the same rate. Also, the benefits of creatine are linear to your body’s muscle creatine levels. That is, if you take half the recommended dosage, you’ll get half the benefits.

I updated my mental model of creatine and the conclusion was clear - missing a day is just missing a day. If you reach saturation in 30 days, missing a day simply lowers the benefit by 1/30.

Realizing this dramatically reduced the friction I have for taking creatine after missing some days. I just realize that each day I actually take it, I get a small benefit. It has nothing to do with my consistency. I started taking creatine more regularly. I still miss some days, but missing some days doesn’t cause me to quit altogether anymore.

Mental models should be useful, not necessarily accurate

Let’s take a look at another personal example.

Example: having a better mental model for love helped my relationship with my wife

I got married when I was 23 years old and have been married mostly3 happily for 10 years now. During most of our relationship, I had a pretty basic mental model for love and romance - a generic what-you-see-on-TV idea of romance. Flowers and chocolate, gifts, vacations and quality time. It was good enough, but there were some issues.

Here’s an example: my wife has a tendency to “fish” for compliments. It would be anywhere on the spectrum from very hinted to outright telling me exactly what to say. It was a pet peeve of mine, because I always felt like any compliments I gave after being asked to were very artificial. “Does this dress make me look fat?” is always answered with “no babe, you look amazing”, so really there’s no point in the whole conversation, right?


Well obviously no, but I insisted. We argued about this a few times. I eyerolled my fair share. I told her I promise to give her more compliments if she stops asking for them. It didn’t help. I hated it and she hated how I reacted.

Then, I learned about Love Languages - a model for love and romantic acts toward your partner. The basic gist is this: there are five different types of loving acts you can do for your partner:

Everyone has a different preference on how they like to be given love (not that people are restricted into a single type, but that there’s a preference or ranking for each person) and here’s the interesting bit: people tend to give love in the same language that they like to receive love.

It dawned on me: my wife sees compliments as expressions of love. I do not. When she asks for compliments, she is asking for affirmation of how I feel about her. For her, asking for a compliment is like asking for a hug. Instead of showing her love, I showed her pettiness. I was embarrassed.

This realization radically changed my behavior, but also my perspective - not only do I always agree to dish out compliments (both when asked and spontaneously), but I also enjoy giving them. Now I see compliments as a simple way to make my wife feel better. It’s a tool in my relationship belt, and it’s a tool that I like to use.

And here’s the interesting bit: the “love languages” theory has no scientific, empirical basis. Gary Chapman, the author, isn’t a licensed psychologist4 and didn’t do any rigorous research to prove this theory. This theory might not be true, but that doesn’t stop it from being useful.

Oh, and love isn’t the only field where you can get great results from inaccurate mental models!

Even outstanding practitioners in a field often don’t know the reasons that what they do works

Adam Ragusea, 10 things Van Halen can teach us about food and cooking

Just because somebody is great at something doesn’t mean they understand it.

One of Eddie’s signature techniques is to take this string, the second string on the guitar, the second one from the top, and tune it down ever so slightly. A lot of Van Halen riffs sound a little out of tune on a “perfectly tuned” guitar, and Eddie can fix this by simply tuning the second string down a little bit. And he was given to saying in interviews that this phenomenon is the result of a fundamental design flaw of the guitar. [..]

At least that’s according to Eddie. That thing that Eddie Van Halen apparently believes simply isn’t true.

Eddie’s solution to the problem works, but he doesn’t quite understand the problem, or quite understand why his solution works. And I don’t blame him. It’s not his job to sit at a computer and be a music theory nerd. His job is to get on stage and melt faces. Like many professional chefs, he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to acquire much theoretical knowledge. He needs applied knowledge, and his application works.

Likewise, great chefs make great food all the time in spite of the fact that they often have mistaken notions of why their techniques work. Gordon Ramsay is the prime example. “Start the duck breasts in the pan cold. But we put them into a cold pan and turn the heat up gradually. It starts to release the fat. If we put them into a hot pan, it seals them in, and the fat stays in there. We want to render that fat down.” Yeah, cooking does not seal in meats. That’s a chef myth that has been disproven innumerable times, and yet: “Seal the duck.” So, Gordon’s reasoning for starting duck breast in a cold pan is flawed, but his method still works great, because fat renders at a much lower temperature than the temp at which meat browns. Therefore, if you start the duck in a cold pan and gradually bring up the heat, you’re giving the fat layer a head start. You’re giving it more time to render before the meat actually starts cooking. And this lets you render out a ton of fat before you overcook the meat. Gordon has the wrong idea, but the right technique, just as Eddie has the wrong idea but the right technique when it comes to de-tuning this B string. Just because they’re great doesn’t mean they understand fully why they are great. And that’s important for us to remember and keep in mind when we’re trying to learn from the greats.

Mental models develop less as we get older

Jordan B. Peterson, Potential, TEDxUofT

As you develop as a competent adult - which is precisely the direction towards which you should develop - much of what you’re doing is actually closing in and narrowing. You’re closing in and narrowing towards a particular goal and a particular way of being. And that’s necessary, because as you develop, you have to develop towards a particular way of being or you don’t develop at all, and you can’t stay a child forever. That goes sour of its own accord.

And so human beings are destined to close their perceptions in, to sharpen themselves and to focus on very little so that they can at least do that. But the price we pay for that is that we start to replace the relationship we have with untrammeled reality with the shadows that are only complex enough to let us do what we need to do and no more. And although we’ve become more competent, in other ways we’ve become more blind.

Mental models exist to help us cope in a complex world that demands too much of our attention. It’s impossible to face every new situation with an open mind, taking everything that happens to us with an inquisitive and fresh mind. No, most of the time, we just need to get shit done. Mental models allow us to have a reductionist view of reality so that we can operate in it without losing ourselves. Once we have a good-enough mental model of something, we start handling these situations more effectively and more predictably. Our actions become Habits™ - a groove in our brain that is deepened each time we automatically interact with something according to a simplistic model.

This is good. We need reductionist mental model to function as adults. The key is noticing when mental models are too reducing, too simplistic, too automatic. We need to know when and how to improve our models.

Intentionally developing mental models is a superpower

The goal with mental models is not to have your mental models as detailed as reality. It’s also not to have good mental models on everything. Almost by definition, these goals require too much effort to be worth it. The goal is simply to develop better mental models faster where they are useful. We need mental models that are good enough to be useful. If we don’t develop better mental models when we need them, we’ll just use the old models when they don’t really apply anymore.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

They finally got themselves together along the wall. Ender noticed that without exception they had lined up with their heads still in the direction that had been up in the corridor. So Ender deliberately took hold of what they were treating as a floor and dangled from it upside down. “Why are you upside down, soldiers?” he demanded.

Some of them started to turn the other way.

“Attention!” They held still. “I said why are you upside down!”

No one answered. They didn’t know what he expected.

“I said why does every one of you have his feet in the air and his head toward the ground!” Finally one of them spoke. “Sir, this is the direction we were in coming out of the door.”

“Well what difference is that supposed to make! What difference does it make what the gravity was back in the corridor! Are we going to fight in the corridor? Is there any gravity here?” No sir. No sir. “From now on, you forget about gravity before you go through that door. The old gravity is gone, erased. Understand me? Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember – the enemy’s gate is down. Your feet are toward the enemy’s gate. Up is toward your own gate. North is that way, south is that way, east is that way, west is – what way?”

They pointed.

The first step is noticing an area of our life where we function well, but want to improve. Something we do by habit, but with mixed results. This isn’t easy! Noticing things is a skill, and I have a long blog post on how to practice capturing thoughts.

Next, you need to decide whether the effort of developing a better mental model is actually worth the investment. Sometimes, you can hold off on that and accrue knowledge debt, areas in your life where you’re at least aware that you have a lacking model.

But what do you do when you actually decide to improve a mental model? You need to research - read a book, watch some YouTube videos, stalk a subreddit for the subject. But mostly, you need to think about the subject in a structured and productive way. And the best way I know to do that is to write for yourself.

I’m a strong believer in writing and that writing is the best way to think. If thinking is developing mental models and writing is thinking, then writing is the best way to develop mental models.

We’re already at over 3,400 words, and if you read all the way here, you have my deepest thanks. My next post will cover writing for yourself - be sure to sign up for my newsletter to get it straight to your inbox (usually less than an email a month!)

  1. My mental model won this round, by the way. She doesn’t turn off her computer anymore either. But other than childhood memories, this has practical benefits as well, if you can afford the cost. ↩︎

  2. Here are two I recommend: The legal strength supplement that actually works (not an ad) by Adam Ragusea and TOP 5 SUPPLEMENTS | SCIENCE EXPLAINED (17 STUDIES) | WHEN AND HOW MUCH TO TAKE by Jeff Nippard ↩︎

  3. I say “mostly” because of course there are also hard patches. Anyone telling you differently is either lying or making their partner miserable. ↩︎

  4. As far as I can tell, Chapman has B.A. and M.A. degrees in anthropology ↩︎

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Thanks to Yonatan Nakar, Ori Bar El, Ram Rachum, Daniel Yosef, Yosef Twaik, Inbal Parvari and Hannan Aharonov for reading drafts of this.

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