Monday, July 12, 2010

The Model of the World Inside Your Head

I've been thinking for a couple years now, off and on, about the fact that we rarely interact with the real world.  Instead, we construct a mental model of the world, and base our behavior on that model.

Here's an example:  the first time you travel to someplace you've never been before, you pay a lot of attention to the route and the things that you see along the way.  You don't want to get lost, and you have to be able to find your way back.  Once the route becomes familiar to you, however, you stop paying as much attention.  You've constructed a mental model of the route, and you follow that.

Some philosophers have argued that, since the world only exists for us insofar as we can perceive it, the model of the world inside our head is actually the "real" world.  If a tree falls in the forest, etc.  (This is also my understanding of Buddhism:  that the world we think we perceive is only an illusion.)  It's a fascinating idea, but ultimately, I think, unhelpful, for this reason:  our model of the world is frequently inaccurate.

In some cases, it's due to sheer ignorance.  I've never been to Australia; my model of Australia is therefore incomplete.  Not only that, but I've heard people talk about Australia, and I've seen lots of pictures, but that doesn't mean Australia is real, now does it?  It's not real to me.  In fact, our experience of the world is so very limited, in time and space, that anyone with a little intelligence must realize just how little they know.   How limited our models of the world are.

In other cases, our false models of the world are created when we are fed false information.  If someone told you every day, for example, that you were stupid, you'd start to believe it, whether it was true or not.  If you lived in a country where black people and white people were required to use separate bathrooms, separate restaurants, even (as I learned recently) separate parking lots, and your parents told you there were good reasons for this segregation, you'd believe them.  Maybe at some point you'd start to question.  Maybe not. Your model of the world would be a segregated world.

Is it possible to change your model of the world?  I believe so, but it is incredibly hard work.  The mind is a stubborn thing.

How can we live with these unavoidably flawed mental models?  I've come up with two guidelines:
  1. Accept that your mental model is imperfect.
  2. Realize that, limited though it is, your mental model is actually more complex than you are consciously aware of.
That second one may seem like a non-sequitur.  Let me talk about some of the ways our mental models are more complex than we usually realize.

We often subconsciously notice things that we weren't aware of at the time.  We may remember them later, or we may not - but either way, they do enter our subconscious and they do form part of our mental model of the world.  To go back to my first example:  once you've created your mental model of the route you take on your daily commute, you usually notice when something has changed.  Maybe you never consciously noticed that detail until did change, but it attracts your attention because your subconscious mind is in fact keeping an eye on things.

Another example: dreams.  Have you ever had a really weird dream?  Where did that come from?  In many cases, your subconscious assembles a number of details from the recent (or not so recent) past, "juggles" them and comes up with an amusing, or perhaps significant dream.  It seems likely to me that this mental activity is somehow related to our models of the world.

It's because our models of the world exist largely on a subconscious level that they can be so hard to change.  The conscious mind simply doesn't have the ability to alter the subconscious.  But I also, personally, find it hopeful to imagine the subconscious mind constantly processing its model of the world.  It never stops and it will keep ingesting all the new data it comes across.  As we know, there are infinite possibilities out there . . . and infinite possibilities inside as well.

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