Monthly Archives: September 2021

Mental Model Metacognition

I’ve been seeing a therapist recently, and it’s been quite nice to be able to take an hour to introspect my mental processes with help from a professional. I also enjoy the time set aside to focus on myself – I don’t feel like I’m taking over the conversation or being selfish with the time.

Aside: I’m not working through any particular issue or trauma in these sessions – a fact that reminds me how messed up the health care system is. Folks who would really benefit from therapy are unable to afford it, while my employment and insurance provide it to me for very cheap. I acknowledge that I’m very privileged in this way.

I think about the idea of a Mental Model a lot, both for myself (“what is my mental model of X”) and for others (“how can I teach Y so that the student has a good mental model”). Teaching, I like to say, is the act of building and debugging mental models in others.

When we interact with the world, we use our mental models to predict what will happen given certain conditions and actions. When we get a mental model wrong, it can be bad, embarrassing, or harmful. Having an incorrect mental model of how a stove works might cause a burn, for example.

Therapy like mine, then, is a way of airing out my own mental models. I show them to someone else and they give me feedback. In this way, I refine the mental models to make better predictions and live a better life.

A 2019 post by Alok Singh titled Mental Model of Dental Hygene got me thinking about the practice of publicly airing out a mental model. I think about Alok’s post often (a lot of time while brushing my teeth, natch), and applying this technique in my own life.

Journaling surely helps in this way as well – the act of organizing a mental model so that it can be written, and viewed as a whole, allows for a different kind of processing. But a journal also doesn’t provide feedback. There’s a certain risk that people take when sharing a mental model with the world. This is perhaps why a journal is kept private, and therapists have laws around confidentiality. The more risk you’re willing to take on, the more and wider feedback you can get.

But why is there a risk? Here’s my mental model (ha ha!) about what that risk is:

  1. A wrong mental model can be embarrassing
    1. People don’t like feeling like they’re wrong, and especially in ways that form a foundation for other thought. Revealing a mental model that’s wrong can invite scorn, teasing, and other humiliation.
    2. Sometimes, this causes people to double down on a wrong mental model instead of abandoning it.
  2. The mental model reveals a deeper kernel that’s shameful
    1. One might reveal a mental model that relies on an assumption that’s e.g. racist or sexist, which would cause them to lose respect or face repercussions.
  3. The mental model conflicts with a political, ideological, or commercial standpoint
    1. You may find that people are resistant – even physically – to a mental model being shared. Purely for example: Alok’s post might run afoul of folks who believe in conspiracy theories about Fluoride, or dentists who make money off of fixing cavities.
    2. I find myself often overweighting this risk. The odds are low but the penalty is high.

But perhaps it’s in the face of this risk that sharing a mental model becomes even more important – you can simultaneously retool your own process and at the same time influence someone else’s.

I sat down today to write out my mental model of Dopamine and focus but wrote this instead, which is apropos. I’ll have to follow up with another post.

From Grand Rapids,