I was recently trying to explain the concept of mental models to my younger brother — how to build them, and how they could be useful. Ironically, I didn't really have a good idea of how they worked, or how to explain them to someone else, until fairly recently. Maybe I still don't. But my brother found this explanation useful, and maybe you will too.
The short explanation is: a mental model is an internally-consistent concept that you can wrap your head around used to describe some real-world thing. Models can start out very basic, with just a few obvious components. You can add components to the model as needed (e.g. as you learn more about the real-world thing). Sometimes you'll realize existing components are actually multiple components (some of which may be reused or overlap with other components), or vice versa. The model should remain internally-consistent as you add or shuffle components though — any one component shouldn't make another component infeasible or impossible. They also shouldn't violate laws of physics.Continue reading →