In this chapter of Bel Canto it seems as if everyone has started a relationship. What piqued my interest however, wasn’t Fyodorov’s confession spiel but instead the philosophical idea of how an individual can create mental representations of themselves and others. The way that Gen imagines Carmen waiting for him is more than just a literary tool or a whim of Gen’s mind, it involves an astonishingly large body of scientific research. Both Gen’s introspective thoughts about his own feelings and the imagined Carmin are all from mental models within Gen’s mind.
The term “mental model” was coined by Kenneth Craik in his 1943 book entitled “The Nature of Explanation.” In it he describes how mental models are like analogies the mind makes to represent a real object, system, or idea. He states, “the model need not resemble the real object pictorially” as long as it “works in the same way in certain essential respects” (51). This idea is similar to how individuals can imagine driving a car yet not know the underlying mechanics that allow the car to function. Craik brings up another interesting point by considering these “translated” objects as a type of prototyping mechanism that enables the mind to rapidly and efficiently modify pre-existing mental models upon the acquisition of new knowledge (52).
In the conscious mind mental models are used for absolutely everything. Due to the brain’s inclination for image processing, since sight generates the most data, visual and spatial relationships are the easiest to model in our minds. As Johnson-Laird notes in his book “How We Reason” the easiest way to demonstrate this idea is by imagining yourself getting out of bed and walking to the front door of your home (24). For most this exercise is trivial and even imagining the location of object about your home is a simple task for the brain. Consequently, that is exactly how ancient peoples would memorize facts, books, and speeches long term, before the dawn of printing. In his book “Moonwalking with Einstein” Joshua Foer describes how to use this method, otherwise known as “memory palace” or method of loci, by “creating a space in the mind’s eye, a place you know well and can easily visualize, and then populating that imagined space with images representing whatever you want to remember” (15).
Naturally, given how mental models are used by the brain to model everything in the world it only stands to reason that the mind also has a mental model of itself and the physical body it inhabits. Robert Mitchell in his research demonstrates how organisms, specifically chimpanzees, utilize mental models to identify themselves. In order to test this Mitchell uses the “mark test” which boils down to putting a mark on the animal’s face and then placing said animal in front of a mirror (295). By trying to scratch or wipe the mark away the animal shows that they recognize that the image in the mirror is at least similar to, if not exactly, themselves. The key point about this research is how the mental model is formed. Mitchell’s hypotheses two theories for mental models that would enable an animal to pass the mirror test but with varying levels of self awareness. The first inductively reasons that due to the animal being aware of its own movements, or “kinesthetic senses”, it will therefore be able to recognize that the image in the mirror is moving exactly the same as itself thereby gaining a limited form of self-awareness. The second theory seeks to determine a conceptual model for how an intelligent organism is required to be self-recognizing based off the mirror test. (297). There are a number of interesting takeaways from this study, the most notable of which might be how mirrors enable individuals to be aware of their body-image and therefore be more conscientious of socially acceptable norms when it comes to appearance (317).
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Michael Lewis did similar research but with human infants and found that, at least in humans, there is a development process associated with passing the mirror self-awareness test. For example, infants less than 12 months old generally all failed the test, only 25% of 15 to 18 month olds passed, and 75% of those between 21 and 24 months passed (13). These results just go to show how adaptable the mind’s mental modeling capacities are and how rapidly something as fundamental as self-awareness can be altered at that stage of childhood. In general, these mental models grow as the brain does and just as the children tested in aforementioned studies grow into self-awareness so does the ability to empathize and take on the perspective of others through an internal mental model of that individual.
In culmination, the brain is an exquisite organ, even after taking in the raw data from all the senses the complexity of how it sorts and interweaves everything into mental models is simply astonishing. Everything an individual knows is represented in one of these mental models and when it comes down to it these mental models are only a compressed, simplified version of the real thing. Due to the brain’s exceptional visual processing power visual and spatial models are easy and abundant, plus exploitable for maximum memorization. The real kicker is how the brain itself contains a mental model of itself and its body which isn’t there on birth, instead it is slowly developed as a child and finally enables self-awareness around the 20 month mark. Overall, mental models are a fantastic neurological phenomena that underlie much of human psychology.
– Michael Pedersen