A mental model is simply an explanation of how something works. It can be a concept or framework in your brain, like game theory, that helps you understand how things interact. Develop a new mental model and you have a different method of viewing reality. Of course, there is no “unified” model, so there are limitations. But they can be useful for daily thinking.
A good example is physicist Dr. Richard Feynman, who had a reputation of walking into a math class and solving calculus problems others couldn’t seem to grasp. He credits this skill to a high school physics teacher who noticed he was bored in class, so he gave Feynman a special assignment — sit in the back of the room and read the book Advanced Calculus by Frederick S. Woods. Not only did this prevent Feynman from disrupting class (as he was inclined to do), but it got him thinking in different ways. The result was his own method of solving integral calculus. Not because he was smarter, but because he had a broader set of “mental models.”
So what does that have to do with us average people? Have you ever heard the saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? When you view the world through the same lens, you approach every problem the same way. You need more than one perspective, because each perspective can be partially true, but no one perspective is complete. Think of the blind men examining the elephant.
If you’re still with me and want to know more, the article is “Mental Models: How to Train Your Brain to Think in New Ways” by James Clear (https://medium.com/the-mission/mental-models-how-to-train-your-brain-to-think-in-new-ways-ad538ca9052c). Mr. Clear includes his list of mental models. The photo came from that article.