A chat about mental models

Winkletter  •  7 Jun 2023   •    

I continue to spend less time online. But I did chat with ChatGPT off and on today talking about mental models. The construction and use of mental models are an importent part of the writing process, and it gets overlooked. So, I’m just trying to understand what kind of mental models a writer uses.

So first, we came up with four (or five) C’s that will ultimately affect and differentiate a fiction writer’s mental models.

  • Content. What specifically is the author modeling? People, places, things, events, actions, or experiences? This relates to story elements that would be taken from long term memory.
  • Context. How are the story elements being framed? Past, present, future, sense, speech, or thought? This relates to discourse, or the specific way the story is being modeled in working memory.
  • Capabilities and Compensation. What particular capabilities or compensations affect the writer? If they hear their characters talking in their inner voice, they may focus on modeling dialogue in a first draft. If they suffer from aphantasia (no mind’s eye) they may compensate with a focus on modeling episodic patterns.
  • Completion. How complete is the story in the author’s mind? Are they making it up as they go along, or do they have a strong sense of what the action is going to be in the next scene?

So, this is going to create a lot of variability in what the author’s mental model will look like at any time while they’re writing, which seems like it would make the mental models of authors tough to study.

But, there is one fortunate thing that might make this easier. The human mind is dominated by a circuit that is desgned for spatial navigation. When scientists talk about the human neocortex growing in size, they are referring to cortical columns, a basic structure that was copied and pasted over and over again to create our wrinkly forebrains.

So, if you can understand how we model and navigate space, you can probably extrapolate that to understanding how we model emotional experiences, procedural actions, episodic events, as well as people, places, and things.

ChatGPT and I talked a bit about how the brain navigates. Place cells create a topographical map we use to navigate. Border cells can represent obstacles. And grid cells help us to strike out and find novel paths to where we are going. If you’re writing a romantic story, you may follow this same pattern. Following a topographical map of a relationship, the character hits an obstacle, and will end up having to strike out into unknown territory using her dead reckoning skills to win her lover’s heart.

And finally, we chatted about how people construct mental models. What are the differences between novices and experts?

To start, we use ready-made patterns or apply metaphors to construct our simplest mental models. We then start to distinguish constituent patterns in the model that compose the whole structure. Then we see how those compositional structures combine into the models or even new models. Finally, we start to see improvements in our abilities as we make strategic choices about the mental models so they better fit the environment.

This is similar to how a writer will start writing by copying others or just writing something that look like a story to them. As they write they begin to notice the constituent patterns like dialogue, or character descriptions and then will start to figure out ways of putting the pieces together that make for more interesting writing. For example, you can start a dialogue then pause for a page while you add description and backstory to explain the context for this dialogue before continuing on to the rest of the dialogue. This structure gives the first part of the dialogue more density.

Finally, as you learn the more complete aesthetic patterns, you become an expert who can choose patterns strategically to fit the story.