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December 27th, 2018
The animal kingdom is replete with an incredible diversity of tools for munching on dinner.
Lions have their fangs for taking down prey, cows have epic molars for grinding down grasses, and blue whales have a screen of baleen to sift food from the ocean.
Each is equipped for processing a different part of the environment, and we humans are equipped as omnivores to chow down on just about everything.
We might for a moment think of the Koala Bear that only eats eucalyptus leaves and wonder what happens to the Koala if some disease comes along and wipes out all the eucalyptus trees? The koala would be in a tough spot.
Whereas we human can lose a huge portion of our diet’s diversity and still find something to make do with.
In all arenas of life, the mental model we use to interpret what is going on is hugely important. Like having the right teeth or the right food, we likewise need the right mental model to best integrate the knowledge of our environment in order to use that information effectively.
Unlike our biological teeth, the mental teeth we can design and redesign and switch out in order to effectively chew on a situation are endless. We can study mental models developed by others, whether this be Bayesian Updating, Pareto’s Principle, or a religious text and use these models as a way to filter and interpret the world.
One important thing about these mental teeth to remember is that there is no end to the design and kind we can create. While many mental models have been developed, this does not mean that all possible useful models have been imagined or discovered.
Often, naive ignorance is the most important factor for discovering something new. If our mind is constantly trying to fit everything we encounter into models we have already learned, then we are less likely to notice natural patterns that may exist in the complexity we seek to understand.
One thing to further keep in mind is the innate violence that teeth perform. Whether a carnivore or herbivore or omnivore, the teeth of all animals (and their subsequent digestive systems) tear apart their food into smaller and smaller pieces in order to extract what is useful. The same is true of our mental models. As mental teeth they simplify the complexity of information we look at, tearing off irrelevant parts and straining for the relevant information.
Imagine for a moment a new problem, and instead of having access to all sorts of mental models that have been used in the past.. imagine having no mental teeth. What sort of mental teeth would we construct in order to rip into the problem most productively? Like the thin edge of a wedge we might perhaps develop one kind of tooth to see how it works with the problem, perhaps to tear the big pieces apart like canines, and then use another tooth to really grind smaller pieces up, like molars. Or for a moment we might imagine a totally different kind of food that needs to be ‘eaten’ from the inside out. In fact we deal with and solve this kind of problem every single day.
We need only think of the teeth of a key used to open a lock. Such teeth interact and process the environment inside of a lock and in doing so highlight the relevant information by moving that internal environment around and open the door or lock.
The teeth of keys is a perfect analogy here for the infinite varieties of mental models that we might imagine could exist for all sorts of different problems, since all keys are effectively different. It’s as though a new mental model is developed uniquely for each problem or in this case, each lock.
Our mind can become like a keymaker that designs new mental models, or new mental teeth for each and every new problem we face. Like some kind of epic swiss army knife, we can compound our collection of keys in order to become more efficient at making these mental teeth and perhaps even come up with a mental model for building mental models. This is, in essence what raw learning achieves.
This is the ultimate skill, to learn how to learn. So that when all the traditional problems dry up, we won’t be like the Koala in a world without Eucalyptus. We can refashion our own mind’s maw and start gnawing on whatever reality throws our way.
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