Even if the concept of Mental Model sounds foreign to you, I can assure you you've been using them for a long, long time.
Mental models are the mental representations of everything that surrounds us. We use them to make sense of the world.
They're our own, personalized, self-crafted mental blueprint of how the world works. They're simplifications, because while in some cases we need to access them quickly and regularly, most times we just want them to be simple enough so that we don't devote much energy retrieving that knowledge.
Imagine having to remember every single detail of how combustion engines and the laws of motion work when you're driving your car, or how electricity is generated and delivered to your home, every time you flip a switch. You just need a simple enough idea of how all of that works, why it makes sense to exist in the world, its relevance in your life, and you're all set!
We’re very good at applying mental models, even if they're rudimentary, incomplete and inaccurate. And it’s something we do naturally.
Remember the last time you had to explain to your parents how the Internet works? Not again … right? Fortunately you could use your mental model! You leveraged on that mental blueprint you created. You might also have caught yourself using metaphors and analogies so that your parents (or other people) could process those complex concepts in bite-size chunks, and easily create a mental model of their own.
On a different note, mental models also describe how we see ourselves. They're a collection of our inner assumptions, how we perceive our actions, and how they impact our lives and the lives of ones around us.
So, why are mental models important?
Mental models are an essential tool for consolidating knowledge, they help create a vast knowledge base
You start off with a few simple concepts and, as you learn more, that map starts expanding. As you find gaps or you can't really draw a connection between parts of your knowledge base, new pieces are added or sections of your map get refined.
Jump-start to problem solving
You can approach problems in a more structured way. You can identify the parts for which you have a good mental models and start thinking about how those pieces fit in the entire problem. If it's something completely new to you, defining a mental model first, will help you get a better understanding of the problem, such that you can break it down into sub-problems more efficiently.
Having rich mental models is fundamental for decision-making.
Every day we're confronted with millions of micro-decisions we have to make, and, every once in a while, we're confronted with bigger, potentially disruptive decisions. Can you imagine the mental effort of figuring everything out, on the fly, every time you were choosing between optimal routes to take to work, deciding which washing machine will be the best for your home, such that it matches your needs but, also is energy-efficient.
Not to mention making sound life-changing decisions based like sticking to a core set of values, deciding how to raise your children, deciding that you want to make the world a better place by committing to X, Y, Z.
Create a shared vision among a group
Each individual has their own perspective on the world. Having a shared mental model of your goals and the guidelines on how you can collaborate in a group is the key to group efforts.
Remember the last time you cooked dinner with a group of friends? You might not have thought about it then, but you certainly created a mental picture of the entire process of cooking that meal. You might also though how you and each of your friends could take care of different parts of the meal, in order to achieve prime deliciousness and make sure everybody had a good time.
The same happens everyday at work, when you and your co-workers have to join efforts on a new project, campaign or end-of-quarter presentation to your regional manager.
Thanks for reading!