We See What we Find Valuable, but Need Different Mental Models to Solve Problems

Value Continuum

This post is part of a new series on conversations worthy of attention.

We spend our days going through tasks and often make our money in tactical mode. It's a data-driven world. Every so often it becomes useful to make some space and go beyond information to build new knowledge.

For example by riffing on two different ideas we come across.

Idea #1: We see what we find valuable.

This was confirmed recently by two studies published in Science#, as reported by Quanta magazine#.

Each of the two research teams found that the neurons that compile animals mental maps of physical space are designed to reprogram themselves to reflect experiences, activities and priorities.

The brain reorganizes the information to map sounds# and abstract concepts like social hierarchies# to suit the individual's needs. When we havbe a goal in mind, we literally see what we aim to see. Neurobiologost at Stamford University Lisa Giacomo# and her team found that this is especially true when we are closer to the reward. 

Jozsef Csicsvari at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria# found that rewards shifted how we perceive the environment. They literally shift the mental grid. At first, the researchers found that the brain shifts back and forth between the two mental maps, to get used to the change—i.e. the reward—then it transitions to the new map.

Charlotte Boccara of the University of Oslo# was a postdoctoral fellow in Csicsvari’s lab during the study. She says, “And that brings us to: What are grid cells?” Rather than organizing space, “they really seem to be about the organization of memory.”

Not all memories, locations, and experiences are created equal. We have a sense of what matters and what doesn't. We literally pull up a different map. With good reason. Our ability to succeed depends on filling a niche people find valuable.

Idea #2: We need different mental models to solve problems.

But, also see how our brain is not large enough to give us the skills that can help save the world, according to Scott Page#, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan. 

The tools and mental models we acquire need to be useful beyond individuals to groups. We also need to collect enough models form which we can draw. Different people bring different basic assumptions of how the world works with them. This leads to collective intelligence. We're used to the term “wisdom of crowds.” 

We live in a complex world, we need to be able to shift our thinking and problem solving through ensembles of mental models. Some people are best when they go deep in one area. Others are able to shift across models. There's no right way of being. Just a need to focus on what others find valuable.

Also, when we don't win, it means someone else was positioned better—because there is no best answer. This is important. There is no best answer. It's not just skills, there's a role of luck

What to do with these ideas

Our brains have the ability to rewire themselves based on experiences and rewards. When we have a goal, we become very selective about what we notice, and what we remember. This may blind us to data and information that is outside our scope or worldview.

We need mental models to draw from to solve problems, whether our capacity is depth in one domain, or breadth in a few domains. It's better to have mental models that are useful in our domains, with a few general knowledge models.

To test assumptions, we need awareness that we might be missing something. To test models, we can compare the experiences of using a broad idea across disciplines. 

These are some suggestions of things that seem to work.