Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on Systems Thinking and mental models
In writing and teaching people about Systems Thinking, we often refer to “mental models”. For some people, this comes as a bit of a surprise, because the context usually involves building models with the iThink or STELLA software. They don’t expect us to start talking metaphysically about thinking. “Is this about philosophy or modeling software?” they may wonder. The software is actually a tool to help construct, simulate and communicate mental models.
Let’s define the term model: A model is an abstraction or simplification of a system. Models can assume many different forms – from a model volcano in a high school science fair to a sophisticated astrophysical model simulated using a supercomputer. Models are simplified representations of a part of reality that we want to learn more about. George Box stated: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”. They are wrong because they are simplifications and they can be useful because we can learn from them.
So, what is a “mental model”? A mental model is a model that is constructed and simulated within a conscious mind. To be “conscious” is to be aware of the world around you and yourself in relation to the world. Let’s take a moment to think about how this process works operationally.
Imagine that you are standing outside, looking at a tree. What happens? The lenses in your eyes focus light photons onto the retinas. The photosensitive cells in your retinas respond by sending neural impulses to your brain. Your brain processes these signals and forms an image of the tree inside your mind.
So at this point, we’ve only addressed the mechanisms by which you perceive the tree. We have not addressed understanding what a tree is or considered changes over time. We are dealing with visual information only. There is nothing within this information that tells you what a tree actually is.
What makes the image of a tree in your minds click as an actual tree that exists right there in front of you? This is where mental models kick in and you start to think about the tree. The tree is actually a concept of something that exists in physical reality. The “tree concept” is a model. Understanding the concept of a tree requires more information than is available through sensory experience alone. It’s built on past experiences and knowledge.
A tree is a plant. It is a living thing that grows and changes appearance over time, often with the seasons. Trees have root systems. Trees use leaves for photosynthesis. Wood comes from trees. I can state these facts confidently because I have memories and knowledge of trees contained within my mental models. Mental models contain knowledge and help us create new knowledge.