Mental Model

  1. Child: A mental model is like an imaginary map inside your head that helps you understand how things work. For example, you know that if you let go of a balloon, it will fly up into the sky. You have a mental model that tells you balloons float when you let them go.

  2. Teenager: Think of a mental model as your brain’s own set of instructions. It’s like when you play a new video game and over time, you figure out the rules, what moves give you more points, and how to win. That understanding you’ve developed is a mental model. It helps you predict what might happen next based on what you already know.

  3. Undergrad majoring in the same subject: A mental model is a representation in your mind of how something in the world works. It’s based on your past experiences, knowledge, and understanding. For example, if you’re studying economics, you’ll build a mental model of how supply and demand affects prices. This model helps you understand, predict, and solve problems in real-world situations.

  4. Grad student: Mental models are cognitive structures that shape our reasoning, decision-making, and behavior. They represent our understanding and interpretation of how things work. They are deeply ingrained assumptions and generalizations that influence how we understand the world and take action. The utility of mental models lies in their ability to predict outcomes or behaviors based on our current understanding of an environment or system.

  5. Colleague (Fellow Researcher/Engineer): Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations. They play a vital role in cognition, enabling us to predict and understand the world around us. These cognitive constructs are influenced by our experiences, beliefs, and perceptions. A key aspect of advancing in our field involves refining our mental models and challenging them with empirical data to ensure they represent the most accurate and efficient understanding of the system or concept at hand.

Richard Feynman Explanation

Imagine you have a set of building blocks in your hands. With these blocks, you can create a structure, right? You can build a tower, a house, or maybe even a little city. But to build anything, you first need to have an idea, a mental picture of what you want to create. That mental picture you have, that’s your mental model. It guides you in arranging the blocks in a way that matches your vision.

Now, when we think about complex ideas or concepts, we also have mental models. They help us make sense of things that we can’t physically touch or see. For instance, think about how a computer works. It’s a little like magic, isn’t it? You type something on a keyboard or click a mouse, and something happens on the screen. But how does it really work?

Your mental model might be something like this: A computer is a sort of electronic brain. You give it instructions by typing or clicking, and it responds by showing you what you asked for. Now, this model isn’t exactly accurate—computers don’t “think” like human brains do—but it’s a simple way to understand what’s happening.

The interesting part about mental models is that they’re personal and can be different for everyone. Two people might understand the same concept in two completely different ways. That’s okay, because the purpose of a mental model is not to be 100% accurate—it’s to help us understand the world around us.

And just like with those building blocks, the more you learn and experience, the more sophisticated and detailed your mental models become. They help us predict outcomes, make decisions, and understand new information. And in a field like computer science, where we’re constantly dealing with abstract concepts, having strong mental models is absolutely essential.

Mental Model of Bank

Let’s think about how the concept of a bank has changed over time, and how our mental models have evolved along with that.

50 years ago, when you thought about a bank, you likely pictured a big stone or brick building with a vault. Inside this building, there were tellers behind a counter who would handle your transactions, whether you were depositing your paycheck, making a withdrawal, or handling some other financial need. The bank was a physical place, and banking transactions were tangible activities - you might have visualized cash changing hands, ledgers being written in, and safety deposit boxes storing valuable items. The bank was a secure, physical location where money was stored and managed. That was the mental model most people had of a bank.

Fast forward today. Now, when you think about a bank, you might still have a mental image of a physical building, but it’s likely that’s not the only image. You might also visualize a website or an app on your phone. Instead of tellers, you’re probably thinking about digital interfaces with buttons to click for different services - depositing checks by snapping photos, transferring money with a few taps, or paying bills online. Instead of seeing cash change hands, you might be imagining numbers changing on a screen. The bank has transformed from a solely physical place to a largely digital service. It’s not just about a place where money is stored anymore, but a platform where numerous financial transactions and services can be carried out anytime and anywhere. This is the new mental model of what a bank is.

In both cases, the underlying concept of a bank as a place to store and manage money remains the same. But the way we visualize and interact with this concept - our mental model - has changed dramatically with advancements in technology. And that’s the beauty of mental models. They’re not static, but evolve with new information, experiences and shifts in context.