Chapter 7: Mental Models and Self Awareness

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

Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Michael Lewis. Mirror-Image Stimulation and Self Recognition in Infancy. N.p.: n.p., 1975. Print.

Craik, Kenneth James Williams. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge: U, 1952. Print.

Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein : The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Johnson-Laird, Philip N. How We Reason. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Mitchell, Robert W. “Mental Models of Mirror-self-recognition: Two Theories.” New Ideas in Psychology 11.3 (1993): 295-325. Print.

Riley, Michael A., Michael J. Richardson, and Kevin Shockley. “Progress in Motor Control Neural, Computational and Dynamic Approaches.” Progress in Motor Control Neural, Computational and Dynamic Approaches. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <;.

One thought on “Chapter 7: Mental Models and Self Awareness

  1. hcelemen says:

    The concept of mental model and the broad spectrum of research that has been done to explore its existence have made me wonder if the brain has any limits in its inner working. There seems to be an immeasurable amount of data explaining its function and capabilities, yet we are still not fully aware of its full capacity. Do we really only use 10% of our brain? Furthermore, the more we find out about the brain the more we must ask and theorize in relation to its performance, how it influences our behavior, and how the human brain differs to set us apart from other living beings.

    It is very interesting to me that you chose this avenue to explore the inner workings of the brain. I was intrigued by the idea of the mental model and how we are constantly, unknowingly utilizing in our daily activities. Imagining driving to school versus planning what route to take to get to class the fastest. I do this, among other things, to plan my routine for the day. We are constantly planning and deciding our best course of action throughout the day. Your post made me realize that our imagination is a powerful tool because by having this ability, we are able to think two or three steps ahead in order to reach the goal we have set on ourselves. I can’t help but relate this back to chess. Chess requires a lot of imagination and calculation. It would be interesting to further explore how mental models are utilized in relation to strategizing and planning for the best course of action. This would be a very valuable skill to have. In addition to planning ahead, you also mentioned memorization. I like that this relates back to your last post about short term and long term memory. It made me realize that a lot of what we do for classes, especially studying for exams, requires a mental image of what we need to learn or understand. I know when I study, I need to rewrite my notes or create flashcards prior to the test. Repetition then helps me create this mental image of the information. This makes me wonder if meditation (a popular exercise that theoretically reduces stress, improves concentration, and calms the brain) is a more extensive method of practicing the construction of a new mental model. I would be interested to see what you could find on meditation and how it can build a “memory palace” in our brains.

    The focus of your research was primarily on how mental model allows the development of self-awareness as observed through the eyes of chimpanzees and human infants. This proves that we are not alone in having the capacity to think critically and connect information from our senses to ourselves. By gaining self-awareness you mentioned that it enables us to “be aware of [our] body-image and therefore be more conscientious of socially acceptable norms when it comes to appearance”. Is this simply because of a group mentality? By changing one’s self to be part of the norm, do we gain a greater sense of belonging? What circumstances promotes or deems it beneficial to sacrifice one’s individuality in order to blend in with a group? Is it instinctual or something we are forced to submit to in order to appease society? Like that saying, birds of a feather flock together. Body image distortion is also a growing issue in our society. Young girls and women subject themselves to greater criticism and therefore stresses over how they can match society’s idea of beautiful. These high standards that we humans set on ourselves then affects our behavior and need to reach far and beyond what we initially thought we are capable. Again, this relates back to your mental model because we are limited by our own imagination. However, I would be interested to see you take this idea of self-awareness even further. Body issue distortion would be an interesting route to take because it results in the increasing number of disorders that the youth in our society is battling. I am mostly thinking of anorexia because no matter how much others perceive the person to be “skinny enough”, that person remains to view himself or herself as fat so they keep trying to lose more weight. As such, what factors contribute to this kind of perception? Can the mental model be used to help those with disorders by helping them create a different mental model of themselves?

    I know I suggested a good number of different avenues that I think you could explore, so I do hope that you find at least one of them interesting enough for future research.



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