Mental Models, Part II

What is a mental model?

In last week’s post I talked about physical models, which are small, simple things that help us understand bigger and more complex things. For example, an architect creates a model of a building before it’s built so her client will be able to  see how the building will look when it’s finished.

A mental model is like a physical model, but it exists inside the imagination. 

Let’s go back to the architect example. If the architect didn’t build a model and instead just talked to her client about what the building would look like what do you think would happen? The client might form an image in his mind of what each room looks like, the dimensions, the materials, the colors. If the architect is very descriptive and the client is a very good listener, the client’s mental model might accurately reflect the mental model that the architect has. Most likely though, the building that the architect is imagining is different than the building that the client is imagining.

Mental Models

This illustrates the power and the peril of mental models. When we communicate with another person on any subject, we assume that the mental model they have on that subject is the same as ours. If our mental models are the same then we can communicate easily, but if they are different we will find that communication becomes nearly impossible.

Here’s a famous example from history. Back in the good old days people had a mental model of the sun that looked like this:

Mental Models Planets

The earth stayed still, and every day the Sun would faithfully circle around our planet every 24 hours. This model made sense to everyone. This is how the sun worked. Then, one day, a scientist named Copernicus had the idea that maybe our model of the sun was all wrong. He imagined a model of the sun where the sun stayed still, and the Earth was the one in motion.

Mental Models Sun

Today, we take it for granted that the Earth moves around the sun. We don’t even bother mentioning it. But if Copernicus was giving a presentation 500 years ago the first thing he would have to do is explain this new model of the solar system. Otherwise, nobody would understand what he was talking about, and all of the details of his research would sound like nonsense to his listeners.

When we talk about our own ideas, we usually assume that our audience has the same mental model that we have. We jump right into discussing the details and intricacies of this model without confirming that the listener is imagining the same thing that we are. Good communication means first building the right mental model in the mind of your listener.

At Lux Virtual our goal is to create a visual model that accurately captures your idea the way that you imagine it. By taking that idea out of your head and putting it onto the screen we can help you imprint this mental model in the mind of your audience. Our videos won’t explain every last detail, but they will make sure that when you present your idea everyone will get the big picture.

Do you have something that’s hard to explain to people? Please get in touch with us. We love helping our clients make hard things easy to understand. 

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