A second kind of thoughtlet

Let me start by quoting myself from last week:

A thoughtlet is a mental signpost - it points you in roughly the right direction

Mental models are the best known thoughtlets: from psychologists who state that’s how we think to business titans who use them to make billions, mental models have received a lot of good press.

For example: the first mental model in this canonical list is ‘The Map is not the Territory.” True, but don’t forget to read Borges’ ‘On Exactitude in Science.’

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.

Sometimes, the order is reversed: the territory isn’t the map! Equations are maps in a very general sense, and in much of physics, we trust the map more than the territory - when Dirac predicted the positron, he did so because the equations predicted a positively charged particle even though the territory (the observable universe) didn’t have positively charged electrons in large supply. He was right!


Mental models are one shot thoughtlets - you see a situation, you apply a model and you’re done. They don’t accumulate. However, many thoughtlets are layered, accumulating meanings over time. I call such thoughtlets bubbles: they expand in meaning as you blow air into them but they at some point they (can) burst out of an excess of meaning that can’t be sustained.

Brand identities are a good example. Apple or Google or Reliance continue to gather new meanings. Google used to be nerd central which made it easy for us to access information. They still have that desirable connotation but now they are also the most visible sign of surveillance capitalism. Who knows: at some point governments across the world might burst the Google bubble? Bubbles attract real world attention that makes them expand, contract and on occasion, collapse when pricked. Here’s a short list of influential bubbles:

  1. National boundaries, flags and other symbols of the nation state.

  2. Brand identities, sports team uniforms and other corporate bubbles.

  3. The Stock Market - doh!

  4. Scientific theories - good ones expand, and when the paradigm shifts, they burst.

  5. Religious symbols

Apart from the layering of meanings, there are two important differences between bubbles and mental models: a) the interaction with the world b) interaction with the agent.

Let me explain why.

Being instantaneous, once you use a mental model, it’s gone. A map isn’t the territory and that’s that. The actual London Underground doesn’t look it’s map at all. You know that and don’t confuse the two.

In contrast, a bubble accrues meaning because of the engagement with the real world: there’s so much contestation about borders (see: Galwan) precisely because the map dictates the territory on occasion.

Bubbles attract feedback from the world. We don’t go to war over mental models, but we do over bubbles.

That’s also why bubbles demand investment from the agents using them. The ideal mental model is one in which I have no emotional investment whatsoever - if it works, great; if it doesn’t, here’s the next one. I use the map of the underground while taking a train but won’t dream of using it while driving.

Bubbles are the opposite: they can demand superinvestment, defining who I am: in layering a bubble with meaning (such as the national flag or the national boundaries) I am also layering myself with identity.

In short, a bubble can be a mental home that I inhabit.