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7.4.7. Classification: Big Patterns: Mental Models


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 7. How The Brain Works > 7.4. Classification: Making Sense of the World > 7.4.7. Classification: Big Patterns: Mental Models

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The way we create internal patterns of the outer world stretches to complex models of behaviour and the whys and wherefores of how things work. A schema (plural schemata) is an internal pattern, a large-scale classification that contains many generalisations and assumptions. A friendlier term that we will adopt, first used by Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik, is mental models.

For example, we have a mental model for each different nationality: the French may be assumed to be, amongst other things, self-absorbed, romantic connoisseurs of good food and wine, whilst the Germans are taken to be arrogant and bombastic, but with a great eye for detail. This makes it much easier to for us to decide how to deal with different peoples, even though the biases embedded in our schema may make this interaction inevitably unfair.

A mental model is a larger-scale pattern of understanding of the world, and may contain other models, classes and objects. These big pictures guide much of our interpretation of the world around us and can enhance our creative ability, but more often act to constrain our thinking.

Mental models are where we hold our learning. We experience the world, spot the patterns and then slot them into our mental models. A particular trick that we do after the ‘aha’ we experience when we learn something is called closure, where we effectively close the door on the mental model. After this, when we see something that will fit that model, we just say ‘oh, it’s just one of those’—that is, we stop learning. Because we can approximately fit an experience to the model and this is sufficient to enable us to predict what will happen, we ignore any further detail. It then often requires an unpleasant surprise for us to reopen the door to improving the model.

A simple technique for creative and inventive thinking is to stand back and recognise that we are using these imperfect mental patterns. When we realise what we are doing, we can then challenge the assumptions and generalisations held within the mental models.

This is summed up well in the poem by psychiatrist R. D. Laing :


“The Range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
to change
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds”


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