Mental Models by Sheldon Reiffenstein

Mental Models

The Science of Seeing and Responding to Visual Stimulus

Family tree, barriers to free speech, time flying…in the time it takes you to read these three metaphors, you’ve very likely formed images in your mind that help you give meaning to them. We do it all the time, use “mental models” to orient our thinking, understanding and response to words and images.

“Mental models are representations that embody information about the structure, function, relationships, and other characteristics of objects in the world, and thus can help people explain and predict the behavior of things in the world around them,” wrote K.J.W. Craik in his 1943 book, The Nature of Explanation. Craik was an original thinker behind how the mind forms models of reality and uses them to predict similar future events.

This “science” of mental models plays a major role in how people view the world. When we see, the light reflects off an object, enters our eyes through our pupils, is inverted on the retina, then zips along the optic nerve to the visual cortex where the image is reconstructed and classified as to what it is. But images are not static in the brain. As the image moves along the optic nerve, other parts of the brain are stimulated as well. Not only do we see an object for its shape, its location in space, and orientation to the objects around it, other areas of the brain respond and light up based on memory, emotion, and the senses of smell, sound, taste and touch. A musician sees a musical score and the melody pops in her head. We greet a friend we haven’t seen for a year and remember the great time we had together at the county fair. A guy seeing a picture of fish and chips, starts salivating.

In a 1986 article “Cognitive Science and Science Education”, psychologist and Harvard professor Susan Carey wrote that mental models “help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

In our business, Maga employs an understanding of mental models in designing our visual solutions. We construct our visualizations to reflect our customer’s mental models. How do they expect something to work and how do we capture that visually? This is crucial to being successful at using visualization to influence, educate, and change behavior among stakeholders. A graphic image that doesn’t accomplish this is simply a pretty illustration.

Mental models are catalysts for successful information seeking; thus are useful in situations where problem-solving behavior is required. This is a critical factor behind how Maga designs visualizations. The majority of our customers are seeking insight into highly complex business with no obvious solution at hand. Mental models are one starting point for our team of strategists and designers as they create visualizations that smooth out the impact of change management efforts, system introductions, or process transformations.

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Taking mental models into account when creating new visuals can help diminish the concerns people have with a new initiative. Then with a powerful visual a new mental model becomes the new paradigm.

References

Carey, S. (1986). Cognitive science and science education. American Psychologist, 41, 1123-1130. Reprinted in Open University Press, Readings in the Psychology of Education and in C. Hedley, J. Houtz, & A. Baratta (eds.), Cognition, Curriculum, and Literacy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1990.

Craik KJW. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1943.

Borgman CL. The user’s mental model of an information retrieval system: An experiment on a prototype online catalog. Int J Man-Mach Stud. 1986;24(1):47–64.

 

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